Most of us have felt the physical side effects of work-related stress at some point in our careers: achy teeth from a clenched jaw, shoulders so tense they might as well be a punching bag, that sort of thing. But can you imagine a career so stressful that workers are literally dying from stress?
Welcome to Japan.
The families of Japanese career men began noticing a disturbing trend in the early 70s: their otherwise healthy husbands, fathers, and sons were dying. There wasn’t a word to explain it; all anyone knew was that a huge number of workers were having strokes and heart attacks at the office. In the 1970s, newspaper industry alone, 18 cases of sudden occupational death were reported by the labor movement. That decade, approximately 100 families total were compensated for the deaths of their loved ones.
The term karoshi, coined in 1982, translates quite literally as “death from overwork.” Over the years, the Japanese government has made attempts to alleviate the pressures that lead to karoshi. While Japan probably has the best means of measuring karoshi deaths, that’s far from saying the government numbers are accurate.
Hiroshi Kawahito, secretary of the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi, told Reuters that even though the government reported a record-high number of karoshi-compensated deaths in 2015, he believes the actual number to be 10 times higher. “The government is reluctant to recognize such incidents,” he said.
Over the last 40 years, the phenomenon has gained global awareness. People are realizing that karoshi is not unique to the Japanese salaryman. For starters, Japanese women and young people are feeling the burn, too.They are in a class that feels pressured to take jobs that don’t offer overtime and breaks, because they have less experience or they’re just trying to get a foot in the door.
This of course leads to more employees being overworked and eventually facing serious health issues.
Working Yourself To Death: a Global Issue
Let’s be honest: the global economy forces longer hours and unstable working conditions upon more and more employees every day.
The effects are evident in the U.S. workforce, too. There are more workers trying to hold down multiple jobs and getting paid as temporary contractors rather than being hired as employees with benefits. Welcome to the gig economy, friends.
On December 1, 2016 a new overtime law will go into effect making an additional 4.2 million US workers eligible to receive time-and-a-half wages for each hour they work beyond 40 a week. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which tries really hard to live up to its name, became law in 1938. The overtime threshold has only been hiked twice since then, once in 1975 and again on 2004. That means 4.2 million workers have not been getting paid the overtime they deserve since the Great Depression.
There are of course, all sorts of arguments for and against the new threshold. But one thing is for certain: you know what people do with overtime pay? They take vacations. And vacations are good for business.
Now that companies around the globe are aware of the realities of karoshi, the growth of industry and employee well-being will go one of two ways: either karoshi research will get shrouded in facade and painted to look presentable, while the actual practices stay the same; OR companies will start valuing their employees and reaping the long-term benefits of a healthy, loyal workforce.
The solution is clear. Now that we understand karoshi, we can kill it.
How about you, are YOU working yourself to death?