Karoshi - where your job is so intense it kills you

Thought you worked long hours? Try moving to Japan, where the work culture is so intense it can literally cost you your life. Photo / 123rf
Thought you worked long hours? Try moving to Japan, where the work culture is so intense it can literally cost you your life. Photo / 123rf

If you thought staying back in the office a few hours each week was rough, try moving to Japan.

In a country where the majority of workers will rarely switch companies or careers once they've secured a position, and have among the lowest allotted annual leave benefits of any country in the world, employees are notorious for their unhealthy working hours.

Almost a quarter of companies there have admitted that some of their employees work well beyond hours, with some companies admitting their staff did more than 100 hours of overtime a month.

At the same time, data from the World Bank found Japan to be one of the least generous countries in the world for paid leave.

Employees in Japan on average are only entitled to 10 days' paid leave, and zero paid holidays. Many won't use even half their allotted days off for the year.

A separate study found that one in six workers in Japan took no paid holidays at all.

Australia, by comparison, offers 20 days' paid leave and eight days of paid public holidays.

Austria and Portugal came out on top for most paid days off in a year, with 22 days and 13 days of paid leave respectively.

The difference in work cultures is confronting, especially considering there's a prominent rate of work-related deaths as a result of the pressure.

Karoshi - when your job can be fatal

The working culture in Japan can be so brutal for some that it results in work-related fatalities. It's a social illness prominent enough to have its own name, called karoshi.

Employers are worked to the point where it becomes fatal, typically due to stress-induced heart attack or stroke and a starvation diet.

According to The Japan Times, the government acknowledged a total of 96 deaths from work-related attacks in the fiscal year ending in March, and awarded compensation for a further 93 cases in which people committed or attempted suicide.

Emiko Teranishi, 67, is the head of a nationwide network dedicated to preventing karoshi at a legal level.

Teranishi lost her husband to work-related suicide in the 1990s. He was the manager of a soba noodle restaurant, and worked so hard he became sleep-deprived and depressed amid an economic recession at the time.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to introduce a legal ceiling on the amount of overtime work a person can do per month. Photo / AP
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to introduce a legal ceiling on the amount of overtime work a person can do per month. Photo / AP

"He worked 4000 hours a year," Teranishi told The Japan Times. "The company had him punch a time card every day, so it knew that he worked that hard. In the days before his death, he had told his boss he had no appetite, he couldn't sleep and was exhausted. The company knew he was at high risk (of karoshi)."

A similar but even more serious work-related condition in Japan is karōjisatsu, in which a person deliberately commits suicide due to job stress.

In December last year, the suicide of a young woman who worked for advertising giant Dentsu Inc. was highly publicised after it was ruled to be a death by overwork.

Matsuri Takahashi, 24, killed herself while she worked for the agency's Digital Account division, according to local media reports.

The family's lawyers said her workload increased drastically over her time at Dentsu; from October 9 to November 7, her total overtime work totalled 105 hours.

In the lead-up to her death, she sent colleagues and friends messages through social media saying she wanted to die.

Authorities who inspected her case concluded she had suffered a mental breakdown based on the psychological burden of working so much overtime.

According to National Police Agency statistics cited by the Japan Times, 2159 people took their own lives due to work-related problems last year.

What's the Government doing about it?

The Japanese government has just issued its first-ever white paper on karoshi.

The country's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is seeking to introduce a legal ceiling on the amount of overtime a person can clock a month.

The Japanese government is also aiming to lower the percentage of employees working more than 60 hours per week to five per cent of the total workforce.

It also intends to convince all workers to take at least 70 per cent of their paid holiday by 2020.

But the trouble is, karoshi stems from a social problem embedded deep within Japanese society, which has been acknowledged as far back as the 1980s. The social pressure combined with the competitive desire to succeed makes it difficult to convince workers to take more time off.

A recent poll by the government finding 20 per cent of the entire workforce faced risk of death from overwork.

The research targeted around 10,000 companies and 20,000 workers, of which 1743 companies and 19,583 workers responded.

The study found that 21 per cent of Japanese employees log 49 hours or more per week. But that's just the beginning.

More than 22 per cent of enterprises reported that some of their workers put in more than 80 hours of overtime per month. This extra 80 hours - some four hours per day - is officially known as the threshold after which risk of death escalates dramatically.

Worse still, 11.9 per cent of companies said they had workers logging more than 100 hours of extra time per month. Almost 30 per cent of these overworked employees are employed in IT and communications, the study showed.

Academia, postal services and transport are also areas where employees tend to work extra-long hours.

So, how's your job looking to you now?

Where to get help

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- news.com.au

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