‘Karoshi’ is a Japanese term which means ‘Death from overwork’. The term was coined in the 1970s and has been added to the Oxford dictionary in 2002. The prime medical causes leading to Karoshi include stress, strokes, heart attack and starvation which have been aggravated by long, tiring work hours and overburdening of work. Specifically, employees who have worked for more than 3000 hours annually- greater than 18 hours every day with their day being panned out in minute detail.
Karoshi, which was earlier considered to be an infrequent phenomenon in Japan, has now become a rampant social problem. The Japan Association of Industrial Health came up with a report of 17 reported cases of sudden occupational deaths in 1978 at its 51st annual meeting. It emerged as a major problem during the ‘Bubble Economy’ of 1980s.
Employees in Britain, Germany and Australia have also suffered due to stress and overburdening of work which has costed their employees millions of dollars.
According to ILO, following are the main reasons that attribute to occupational stress and overwork:
1. Stress due to frustration of set goals not being met. For example, companies setting high sales target for its employees even during recession leading to psychological burden.
2. Working on holidays, overtime or working all night excessively can also lead to stress and exhaustion. This happened during 1980s when the bubble economy collapsed and companies had to drastically reduce the number of employees but the amount of work remained the same.
3. Bullying and forced resignation of loyal employees can be a setback to their confidence and enthusiasm towards work.
4. Stress in middle management owing to them being vested with authority to hire and fire workers. It led to a moral and ethical dilemma between protecting the loyal employees and the restricting policy of the organisation.
A related term is Karojisatsu which implies committing suicide due to stressful work surroundings and overwork.
There have been measures taken in Japan to prevent Karoshi by reducing working hours and minimising holiday work as much as possible. Also, medical treatment, better access to medical facilities and effective communication between employees and employers for designing effective and efficient work methods. Years of research and protests from families of victims has resulted in enactment of ‘Act to Accelerate Moves for the Prevention of Karoshi’ in November 2014.