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Avoiding Karoshi

Photography: orphanjones

In the financial year of 2006-7, Japan broke a record. Around 355 workers fell ill from overwork. Of those, 147 died, usually of heart attacks or strokes. It was Japan’s highest figure ever and an increase of 7.6 percent from the previous year, despite a government campaign to cut work hours.

It’s such a Japanese phenomenon that they’ve even termed a word for it: “karoshi,” which means “death from overwork.” The term dates from the 1980s when the economy was bubbling and several —  apparently healthy — top executives suddenly keeled over.

The cause is Japan’s painfully long work hours. Officially, Japanese employees put in an average of 1,780 hours a year, just 20 hours less than Americans (although 340 hours more than Germans). But those figures don’t include unpaid overtime, which Japanese companies take for granted. According to a report in The Economist, a third of Japanese men in their thirties work more than 60 hours a week, but half receive no overtime pay at all. Shortly before he died, Kenichi Uchino, a 30-year old Toyota employee who collapsed at work at 4am after racking up more than 80 hours of overtime a month for six months, told his wife that he was happiest when asleep.

Clearly, that’s no way to go through life and the country is trying to change things. Courts have increasingly placed responsibility for workplace deaths at the feet of employers so that now almost half of claims are declared karoshi. The ruling grants the surviving family government compensation of around $20,000 a year and up to $1m in damages from the company.

Californian Karoshi

It all sounds as Japanese as porno comics, thigh-length school socks and Hello Kitty  but for anyone who worked through the dotcom boom, karoshi does strike a sickening note of familiarity. When Silicon Valley was stuffed with new Web start-ups, high-tech employees too were expected to work all hours, often by the midnight glow of a lava lamp. But even in the early years, no one believed they would be doing it forever. With a pocketful of stock options, the dream was to work yourself into the ground for a couple of years, then go public, cash in and spend the rest of your life gloriously doing nothing.

Of course, many of those who didn’t reach that finish line found that the end of the road came to them. The bubble popped and they got a P45 with more free time than they wanted.

For employees then, even in the hi-tech sector, the threat of self-sacrifice is less that it might be lethal than that it will be pointless. Even then though, as soon as it becomes clear that the company they’re working for isn’t going to make them rich enough to retire before they’re 40, non-Japanese employees are free to move on. They can either start their sprint again at a different company or take the benefits now in the form of a regular 9-5 at a different firm.

How to Work Harder and Be Happier

That’s harder to do for the self employed. Even if they’re not at risk of collapsing at their desks, studies have found that entrepreneurs consistently work longer hours than employees, partly to offset the greater risk of running their own business but also because they can set their own schedules. It’s that freedom – and presumably, the knowledge that they get all the benefits of the longer hours – that makes the difference. The same surveys that find the self-employed work more than staff also find that they’re generally happier.

But there are ways for anyone to reduce their work hours and lower the risk of death by keyboard. Japan is opting for a combination of hi-tech and rest. Workers are being encouraged to telecommute (which might suggest they’ll be dying at home instead of clogging up offices) and to take breaks when they start a family or to look after aging parents.

Against that pressure though is the perhaps stronger threat that downsizing their jobs will reduce them to temporary positions – a growing trend in Japan — removing the automatic promotion prospects and enviable retirement packages that are the closest thing to rewards for the unpaid overtime.

Outside Japan, the same risk can be seen in lower average pay for women as mothers take time out to raise small children.

Perhaps the best approach though is to look at what the French do. Despite their comparatively short workweek, French employees consistently top productivity surveys. They might spend less time at the office than Americans and Japanese do but they use their time there much more efficiently. Old-time Web workers who look back fondly on company Yoga sessions and daytime dodgeball might wonder if they wouldn’t have been happier giving the games a miss, knocking off at six, and spending more time with the family.

Part of actually doing that comes down to careful time-keeping. If work expands to fill the time available, cutting the number of hours you give yourself to complete tasks should help you to get them done faster — and home earlier.

Unfortunately, as unions claim, this might be what lies at the bottom of another trend: the rising rates of workplace suicides in France. However you do it, it seems, hard work will get you in the end.

[tags] karoshi [/tags]

One Comment

  1. raj Says:

    A very informative article. Thanks for this. Never realized it was so bad in Japan. I know from my own experience in Canada that when you're salaried and in a "career" job, overtime is expected - and more so from single people because they have "no excuse" to be away from the office by a certain time of day. But most of the time, we do get paid for it, even if we're on salary.

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