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.