Much-needed probe into overwork

An outline of the government’s efforts to prevent death from overwork — now being prepared by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry — calls for long-term research to track down the causal relationship between work conditions of corporate employees and their health problems, whose outcome is to be utilized in the measures to eradicate ways of work that impair the physical as well as mental health of workers. Collecting and analyzing cases of overwork that resulted in death or suicide should serve as a long-overdue step in the fight to eliminate such tragedies, but much more needs to be done.

The ministry is working on the outline as required by a law enacted last year that made it the government’s obligation to promote efforts to prevent death from overwork. Based on a draft submitted by the ministry last month to a panel comprised of experts, representatives of employers and labor unions as well as families of victims, the government plans to compile the outline by this summer.

The probe will cover not only workers in private-sector companies but government employees and self-employed people. The outcome of the research should be shared by all parties concerned, so that staff at municipal governments and businesses can offer relevant advice to prevent health impairment of workers.

It’s been a long while since preventing karoshi — the Japanese term for death from overwork — has been billed as an urgent task for the Japanese society to address. Chronically long working hours remain a problem for many of the nation’s corporate workers. Without waiting for the outcome of the research, the national and local governments, employers and labor circles need to act quickly and work closely together to stop the ways of work that damage workers’ health.

According to the health ministry, 133 people who died of brain and heart diseases in fiscal 2013 were recognized as victims of overwork under the labor accident insurance program. Roughly 80 percent of these people had clocked more than 80 hours of overtime a month on average — deemed the threshold where the risk of death from overwork rises — before they died.

As many as 436 workers were recognized under the same program as sufferers of mental illnesses such as depression, including 63 who either committed or attempted suicide. The triggers of their mental problems included long work hours, their job assignments, harassment by and troubles with their superiors and colleagues, and young workers in their 20s and 30s reportedly account for a large proportion of such people.

Experts say these alarming numbers represent just a tip of the iceberg, because they are officially recognized as victims only after they or their families apply for coverage under the labor accident insurance program. People who have settled their disputes with the employers or those who have given up making their case are not counted in the figures.

The ministry’s probe should shed light on the practices that impair the workers’ health but may not appear on statistics. The research should look closely from multiple angles at the work conditions of, for example, the so-called nominal managers who are effectively not given discretion over their own work hours but are not entitled to overtime wages, people who work irregular shifts, workers who spend their private hours at home on their unfinished jobs — and how such practices impact their health.

Along with the probe on the circumstances of people who die from overwork, the ministry’s draft calls for research into medical efforts to prevent such deaths, cuts to the hours worked by corporate employees, as well as efforts to encourage workers to take their paid holidays. It sets a target of reducing the proportion of workers who work 60 hours or more a week from 8.8 percent in 2013 to 5 percent or less in 2020 — although whether this target is ambitious enough is in question.

The Labor Standards Law limits work hours to eight a day and 40 a week. Still, these limits can be extended under a labor-management accord at each company. Discussions to set a maximum limit on work hours — including overtime — remain pending. Criticism abounds that many companies fail to properly manage the work hours of their employees.

The Abe administration is meanwhile seeking to introduce a new system in which certain types of high income workers would be excluded from the work-hour regulations and be paid for their work performance, instead of the hours they put in. The government says the proposed system —which individual workers would choose of their own accord based on an agreement between management and the company’s union — would contribute to efficiency and may enable workers to reduce their hours because they can leave once they’ve done with their job.

But criticism persists that the system could exacerbate the problem of long work hours, and doubts remain if the mechanism in the system to prevent overwork is sufficient. Concern about the proposed system is shared by many of the people involved in the fight against death from overwork, including lawyers and families of the victims. The proposal, included in the amendment to labor laws that the administration hopes to enact during the current Diet session, needs to be carefully discussed from the viewpoint of protecting workers’ health.