Getting a grip on karoshi

A law aimed at preventing karoshi, or death from overwork, took effect this month as the first legislative action of its kind, but whether the largely symbolic step will result in effective measures to eliminate health-related deaths and suicides of overworked and stressed-out company workers depends on further efforts by officials, lawmakers and employers.

Long after the problem was widely recognized in the 1980s, we still have hundreds of cases of people dying or killing themselves each year after being subjected to excessive workload or psychological stress on the job. As required by the law, the government should start by exposing the gravity of the problem.

A few days after the law took effect Nov. 1, the Tokyo District Court ordered a restaurant chain operator to pay ¥57.9 million in damages to the family of a former manager of one of its outlets in Tokyo who hanged himself in 2010. The 24-year-old manager had worked an average of more than 190 hours of monthly overtime in the seven months prior to his death. Last month, the Kumamoto District Court ordered a local bank to pay ¥130 million in compensation to the family of a 40-year-old employee who committed suicide after suffering from depression that the court determined had been induced from overwork.

Over the past decade, more than 300 people each year have been awarded compensation under work-related accident insurance after suffering either heart attacks or strokes. In 2013 alone, 133 of such people died. A growing number of workers also win damages for work-induced mental problems, with the figure hitting 436 last year, including 63 who either committed or attempted suicide.

These alarming numbers and court cases over labor abuses are said to represent only a tip of the iceberg. Experts say families of people who died or killed themselves due to overwork or work-induced stress may give up applying for compensation as they find it difficult to collect evidence that their loved ones’ health problems or suicide had been caused by excessive workload.

According to Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s 2013 statistics, 8.8 percent of full-time employees at Japanese firms, or an estimated 4.74 million, worked more than 60 hours per week — crossing the threshold of 80 hours of monthly overtime, one of the criteria used in determining whether a worker’s death can be attributed to overwork. The ratio shoots up to 17 percent among male workers in their 30s. Problems also persist of unpaid overtime and “nominal” managers who are effectively given no control over their own workload but receive no overtime pay.

The law makes it the duty of the government to take steps to eliminate overwork-induced deaths or suicides of employed workers, but it does not impose new work-hour regulations or penalties on businesses that have employees work excessive hours. It mandates that the government launch research on the realities of overwork-induced health hazards and excessive workload, and report its findings to the Diet every year. The government needs to get to the bottom of what’s happening at workplaces, which should serve as the basis for next steps with teeth to end the problems.

The law also requires the government to implement public-enlightenment programs about the risks of overwork, establish counseling systems and provide support for nongovernmental organizations dealing with the issue.

The Abe administration is pushing for the introduction of a system whereby some workers will be excluded from the 40 hours-a-week limit on work hours and be paid on the basis of their performance, not the hours they spend in office. Concerns exist that such a deregulation could end up resulting in employees having to work extra long hours until they finish their assignments. The business community, which has called for deregulation of the work-hour rules, is opposed to the introduction of a uniform cap on the maximum work hours including overtime. But the key to eliminating death from overwork will be efforts to curb the long working hours of many corporate workers. The new law should be utilized to eliminate the practice of employees working unreasonably long hours.

  • Stephen Kent

    Customer: Hello, can I speak to the person in charge of sales please?
    Company: I’m sorry, I’m afraid he’s gone home for the evening
    Customer: Oh, that’s OK, I’ll call back tomorrow.

    I think that when situations like this become more acceptable and more commonplace in Japan we might see progress being made with the problem of excessive working hours. As I see it, companies in Japan have very little or no consideration for the employees of other companies that they have dealings with, and expect the employees of these companies to be available whenever they are summoned. If the party in the superior position in a commercial relationship feels that their requirements haven’t been met, no matter how unreasonable, they kick up a storm, which results in the company providing the service having to apologise. This in turn results in the individuals deemed responsible for the problem being given a dressing down and having even more pressure placed on their shoulders. It seems that the concept of the customer being king transcends any other consideration, and the inevitable negative consequences of this way of thinking are, as ever, blamed on the people in the weakest position.

    This law is a symbolic first step, but it needs teeth to ensure that the employees of abusive companies have swift recourse to legal protection which, in the long term, will hopefully change the business culture here so that corporate bullying is eliminated and companies operate with more consideration not only for their own employees but the employees of other companies as well.

  • kyushuphil

    It starts in the schools.

    If youth learn in school that their humanity doesn’t matter — nor still less that of peers around them — forget it. All are doomed, as all generally are now.

    Youth learn instead only that numbers matter: numbers on tests especially.
    In most Japanese high schools, youth write next to nothing. Almost no essays.

    And if they do write some essays, virtually none have the extra human energy of collateral referencing of fellow students. They may, instead write formulaic intro, 1, 2, 3, conclusion. They may write essentially dutiful summaries of this and that. All with disembodied, neutered voice.

    After all, they are in training to be robots, zombies, ikeru-shikabane, the living dead. They are correspondingly in training to stand up, bow, sit down. Over and over. Not to see or treasure humanity, human voices, in themselves and others.

    Of course they will behave like the willing-to-die when they get into company life. All are already half dead. Or more. Thank you, teachers.

    Then factor in the idiocy of the consumer marketing in all advertising — souls with no expected humanity inside (“hone”) — only from outside (“tatemae”), by buying stuff, wanting more stuff.