Karoshi overwork death syndrome

Karoshi, work in Japan is a matter of honor. A Japanese employee works an average of 2,070 hours per year. Overwork causes about 200 people to die each year from a heart attack, stroke or suicide. There are also several serious health problems resulting from non-stop work.

This conception of work is one of the golden age legacies of the Japanese economy of the 1980s. Hideo Hasegawa, university professor, and former Toshiba executive express it perfectly: – When you are in charge of a project, you must carry it out in any condition. It doesn’t matter how many hours you have to work. Otherwise, it’s not professional.

The reputation of tireless workers pursued with obsession by the Japanese is not a myth. Many employees feel guilty when they go on vacation for leaving their company, fearing that they will be perceived as – those who rest by letting others do their job -.

Some workers avoid returning home too early for fear of what neighbors or relatives may think about their alleged lack of seriousness. In addition, there is a tendency to go out with colleagues to promote corporate culture. However, this hard work isn’t all that profitable. In fact, Japanese productivity is often defined as low by external observers who see in this part of the low competitiveness of the archipelago’s companies.

In the long term, this way of working is not competitive in commercial terms, but it also represents a risk to the health of the population, which could cause the collapse of medical resources. Depression and suicide are already the main challenges facing a society obsessed with the accumulation of overtime.

How does a person get to karoshi?

The problem is that burnout remains a vague concept, which for the moment does not appear in any of the main international classifications of mental disorders. An individual can be hospitalized for various symptoms related to burnout: extreme fatigue, nervous exhaustion or depersonalization with insensitivity to others, without these symptoms leading to a clinical picture of karoshi.

There is no clear diagnosis for these symptoms or parameters to determine if a limit has been reached beyond which work represents a health risk. This lack of awareness of mental health, increasingly abusive professional practices and a job market transformed by technology, lead to overcoming all the limits of dedication to work.

The fear of unemployment and of remaining out of the system leads people to believe that working at any time is a valid alternative, when in reality cognitive abilities are reduced and the consequences for health can become irreversible; and with the increasing risk of falling into addictions of all kinds.

Karoshi, therefore, resembles unbearable chronic stress, for which the subject is no longer able to resist and falls into depression. The term burnout, however, is socially more accepted, as extreme exhaustion is considered almost a title of honor, while depression is clearly less honorable: it is perceived as a form of weakness.

To combat this pathology one must change one’s mentality. To begin with, Japanese entrepreneurs must abandon the false idea that long shifts are critical. They should learn from European countries such as Germany, France or Sweden and move on to an entrepreneurial model that promotes shorter working days.

The Japanese government is already acting through legal reforms and more scrupulous administrative oversight, properly using state authority to end grueling shifts. It has approved a reform that allows companies not to assign overtime to workers who earn more than $ 80,000 a year, more subject to a nervous breakdown.

The Japanese state also intends to impose a minimum of 5 days of leave on employees to counteract the damage of overwork on company health and productivity. In the Land of the Rising Sun, workers with at least six and a half years of seniority enjoy 20 days of paid vacation per year. However, they use less than half of it.

The new law is not applicable to part-time employees, but only to employees who are entitled to at least 10 days of paid annual leave. It applies if there is a real risk to health, an accident at work or death from fatigue.


The population should also be an active part of the end of too long working hours, making their voices heard in front of entrepreneurs and the government, and claiming more sustainable working conditions that would ease them from the pressure. As citizens, it is equally necessary to reflect and evaluate whether the excessive request for services is not promoting, despite ourselves, the tightening of the working conditions of other workers.

This post was published on March 9, 2020 5:38 pm

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