Karoshi: death from overwork

The reputation of hardworking people obsessed with the Japanese is not a myth. Many employees feel guilty when they go on vacation for leaving their company, fearful of being perceived as 'those who rest and let others do their jobs.'

Karoshi: death from overwork

On Christmas Day 2015, Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old woman, threw herself out of her apartment window. She was hired by global advertising giant Dentsu in April of the same year. The umpteenth victim of karoshi, 'death from overwork', recognized by the Japanese authorities as an accident at work since 1989.

On his Twitter account, Matsuri wrote that he slept only 'two hours a night' and that he worked 20 hours a day. He also wrote: 'my eyes are tired and my heart is dull' or 'I think I would be happier if you killed me now.'

Although these dramatic cases appear to us somewhat distant and typical of other cultures, the karoshi is nothing more than a brutal reflection of how far the capitalist mentality can go, which mixes meritocracy with the most grueling competition to be (or appear) / make us be (appear) more worthy to occupy a place in this world.

Karoshi: Work in Japan is a matter of honor

A Japanese employee works an average of 2,070 hours a year. Overwork causes the death of about 200 people a year, from heart attack, stroke or suicide . There are also several serious health problems resulting from non-stop work.

This conception of work is one of the legacies of the golden age of the Japanese economy of the 1980s. Hideo Hasegawa, a university professor and former Toshiba executive, puts it perfectly: «When you are responsible for a project, you have to carry it out under any conditions. It doesn't matter how many hours you have to work. Otherwise, it's not professional. '

In the 1980s, Japanese advertising extolled the self-denial of employees with a motto: 'Are you ready to fight 24 hours a day?'

Uniformed employees

The reputation of hardworking people obsessed with the Japanese is not a myth . Many employees feel guilty when they go on vacation for leaving their company, fearful of being perceived as 'those who rest and let others do their jobs.'

Some workers avoid going home too early for fear of what they may think neighbors or relatives about their alleged lack of seriousness. Additionally, people tend to hang out with colleagues to promote corporate culture. However, this hard work isn't all that profitable. Indeed, Japanese productivity is often described as low by outside observers who see in this part of the lack of competitiveness of the archipelago companies.

In the long term, this way of working is not only not competitive in commercial terms, but also represents a risk to the health of the population, which could cause the collapse of medical resources. Depression and suicide are already the main challenges to be faced for a society obsessed with the accumulation of overtime.

How does a person get to karoshi?

The problem is that burnout remains a 'vague concept' which, for the moment, does not appear in any of the main international classifications of mental disorders. An individual may be hospitalized for several symptoms related to burnout: extreme fatigue , nervous breakdown or depersonalization with insensitivity to others, without these symptoms referring to a clinical picture of karoshi.

There is no clear diagnosis for these symptoms or parameters to determine whether a limit has been reached beyond which work poses a health risk. This lack of awareness on the mental health , increasingly abusive professional practices and a labor market transformed by technology lead to overcoming all the limits of dedication to work.

The fear of unemployment and of staying out of the system leads people to believe that working at any time is a valid alternative, when in reality cognitive abilities are reduced and the consequences for health can become irreversible; and with the increasing risk of falling into addictions of all kinds.

how you learn to be alone

The Karoshi, therefore, resembles an unbearable 'chronic stress', for which the subject is no longer able to resist and falls into depression. The term burnout , however, it is more socially accepted, as extreme exhaustion is considered almost a 'title of honor', while depression is clearly less 'honorable': it is perceived as a form of weakness.

But this phenomenon is not limited to Japan. The Americans even gave it a name: workalcoholism . In Italy, the studies in question are still few, therefore it is not possible to provide a reliable estimate. In Switzerland, on the other hand, one in seven active people admits to having been diagnosed with depression.

Stressed woman at work

Measures to combat karoshi

To combat this phenomenon, it is necessary to change mentality. To begin, Japanese entrepreneurs must abandon the false idea that long shifts are essential . They should learn from European countries such as Germany, France or Sweden and move to a business model that promotes shorter work days.

The Japanese government is already taking action through legal reforms and more scrupulous administrative oversight, correctly using state authority to end grueling shifts. It approved a reform that allows companies not to assign overtime to workers who earn more than 80,000 euros per year, as well as more subject to exhaustion.

The state also intends to impose a minimum of 5 days of vacation on Japanese employees to counter the harms of overwork on corporate health and productivity. In the Land of the Rising Sun, workers with at least six and a half years of seniority enjoy 20 days of paid leave per year. However, they use less than half of them.

The new law is not applicable to part-time employees, but only to employees who are entitled to at least 10 days of paid annual leave. It applies in the event that there is a real health risk , accident at work or death due to fatigue.


The population should also be active in the end of too long working hours making their voices heard in front of employers and the government and claiming more sustainable working conditions that would relieve them of the pressure.

As citizens, it is equally necessary to reflect and evaluate whether the excessive demand for services is not promoting, in spite of ourselves, the tightening of the working conditions of other workers.

Toxic work environment: signs to recognize it

Toxic work environment: signs to recognize it

A toxic work environment produces dissatisfaction and malaise. Some signs can help us spot it and take action.

  • Nishiyama, K., & Johnson, J. V. (1997). Karoshi—death from overwork: occupational health consequences of Japanese production management.  International Journal of Health Services , 27 (4), 625-641.
  • Uehata, T. (2005). Karoshi, death by overwork.  Nihon rinsho. Japanese journal of clinical medicine , 63 (7), 1249-1253.
  • Kanai, A. (2009). “Karoshi (work to death)” in Japan. Journal of business ethics, 84(2), 209.