Death By Overwork? Ask The Japanese

By Margie Nichols, Ph.D.

I read an article this week about Karoshi, ‘death by overwork,’ a phenomenon that has been common in Japan since the early 90’s. At that time, many Japanese, who have the longest average work week in the world, starting dropping dead of heart attacks and strokes attributed to their ridiculously long hours – an average of 60 hours a week, every week per year.

 In the last few years, the nature of Karoshi has changed, as has Japan’s economic picture.  Increasingly, younger people feel fortunate to get jobs as ‘salarymen,’ i.e., permanent salaried jobs. Japanese economy is driven more and more by temporary workers who get no job benefits and no guarantees of job permanency. Those who are ‘salarymen’ feel unable to turn down requests to work crazy hours for fear of losing their positions and plunging into poverty.  Depression and suicide have become epidemic, with the police estimating that one third of suicides in Japan are triggered by work stress.

Clearly, it is possible to work yourself to death.

On the heels of reading about Karoshi, I read research showing that unemployment leads to upsurges in depression rates.  So which is true? Is it ‘overwork’ or ‘underwork’ that causes dangerous levels of stress and mental illness?

The answer, I think, is that they are related.  Although above a certain level having a lot of money doesn’t make people happy, at poverty levels everyone is at risk of stress-related disorders.  And in times of high unemployment, it is predictable that the rates of these problems will rise.

But high unemployment sets the stage for overwork, when those who have jobs are so fearful about losing them that they are willing to accede to unreasonable demands by bosses. (I could go on a rant here about the declining strength of unions, but I’ll leave that for another time).

Unbalanced lives are stressful, and people who work too much CAN’T have balanced lives.

For a while there, I was hopeful that our Western work ethic would change.  As a feminist who wanted change, not mere equality, I hoped that women’s increasing presence in the workforce would humanize job life.  In our culture, men’s self-esteem is in large part determined by their income and job status.  But women, even when they pursue careers, tend on the whole to want more work-life balance.  If asked about my greatest achievements I would name my kids, even though I have founded, run, or staffed several organizations dedicated to helping underprivileged, marginalized people. Many of us in the second wave of feminism believed we could transform the workplace away from consumption driven, money oriented values.  We wanted something like what a few European countries offer now – reasonable work hours, lots of vacation, lots of family leave for both men and women, child-friendly workplaces. No working 80 hours a week, no being married to your job.

But that didn’t happen. In part, the glass ceiling is due to a shortage of women willing to risk Karoshi, and I don’t blame them.  But the fact that our culture is as driven as it still is depresses me.  I had a brief surge of hope when people decried ‘Gen X’ people for being spoiled, not wanting to work as hard as their elders.  Others criticized this – I applauded.  Why should any of us want to make work our main goal in life?

But any strides women and young people might have made in dismantling the driven work ethic has disappeared in this economy.   We are all painfully aware of the cost of our economic problems in the form of stressed, depressed unemployed workers.  But the stage has been set for the opposite problem here in the U.S. as well – the problem of overwork, a de facto return to the 10 hour day, six day work week of the early twentieth century.

If we aren’t careful, we could see Karoshi here.  


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