Karoshi: Are We Working to Death?

Karoshi: Are We Working to Death?

Work is back on the agenda, in a big way. Businesses are reopening, following the pandemic. And many people are being forced to return to offices, despite the level of productivity when working from home remaining stable. Yet, with everything changing over the past year, the way we view the working week is changing alongside it.

We live in a society that lauds high yield and low cost solutions, resulting in phrases such as “human resources”. This has led to the phenomenon known as “karoshi”. Literally translating as “overwork death”, karoshi is where individuals work themselves to a state of over-exhaustion. Thereby dying as a result of the stress, dehydration and fatigue. But, across the world, the people are fighting back.

Tang Ping – The Lying Flat Protest

Beginning as a single, social media post by Kind-Hearted Traveller, who speaks about the importance of happiness through acceptance, the Tang Ping movement has quickly spread across China. Basing itself around the importance of fighting against the 9am-9pm workweek which is so common in the country, it’s dubbed the “Lying Flat Protest”. With the movement centering around taking a step back. Therefore, appreciating the smaller things, and not feeling the pressure to take part in the rat race of career-focused system, protesters are taking a step back from the working world. And this has economists and business owners worried.

Karoshi statistics
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As such, the movement has quickly become popular among young people, with “61% of the 241,000 participants say they want to embrace the lying flat attitude,” according to the South China Morning Post (via The Independent). It’s not surprising, however, when you consider how many people are working 12h days. Yet, they still can’t afford a deposit for their house, or to have a kid.

This comes in the face of China’s dream of national rejuvenation and rapid economic growth. One which depends almost entirely on a heavy work ethic. Indeed, the Global Time, one of the Chinese government’s media outlets, states that “China is at one of the most important stages of its long road to national rejuvenation. Young people are the hope of this country. And neither their personal situation nor the situation of this country will allow them to ‘collectively lie flat’.”

But it’s not just China that’s seeing a change in how we, as the new generations, view our work. Interestingly, the call for lying flat is spreading – albeit under different names and movements.

Changes Are Also Coming to the Fore in the Western World

Over in America, there’s a huge worker shortage. Part of the reason for this naturally falls under the Covid protection costs, such as parents having no childcare available due to closures, being a vulnerable person or unvaccinated. However, there has been a major awakening. Put simply, many people aren’t willing to work high-risk jobs, which put them in the firing line of a virus which can cause lifelong problems, for such little pay.

In particular, those whose work was previously deemed to be “low skill” are now finding that they have more power than ever. While work in these areas often makes employees feel disposable and of little value, and solidarity is spreading between jobs. As well as across country borders. Now, workers are refusing to work for such low pay.

overworked and underappreciated
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The hospitality sector, which is renown for its high turnover of workers, is one of the hardest hit. However, despite some believing that this comes down to a “poor work ethic”, the real reasons are not so clear-cut. Speaking to the BBC, a spokesperson for the Institute for Employment Studies, states that “one-third of young people now in high-skilled work were in medium or low-skilled jobs a year earlier.” So, it looks like taking the time to work on themselves, in terms of personal growth or upskilling, is certainly working.

This means that the experienced staff are realising their value and seeking to move forward in their career. As such, employers now not only need to entice people with more than the minimum wage. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they have to simply up the wages. Indeed, it will work in their favour to take on those with less experience and offer them real growing opportunities, too.

What is Karoshi?

And, so, we come to our main point. What is karoshi – and are we still hellbent on working ourselves to death? Well, to understand karoshi is to understand the culture from which it is born. As highlighted, the Eastern/Asian culture is already heavily reliant on being productive. Oftentimes to the point that it becomes a stereotype in pop culture.

The reality, of course, is that overworking is a major problem in these areas. Most workers will not be able to complete a full day’s work in the standard 9-5 hours. So, instead, they stay late and start early. As well as working in jobs that make them miserable. Finally, there’s a financial and familial obligation to provide income. All of which adds up to a major case of stress, exhaustion and a long list of physical and emotional symptoms.

Karoshi overwork death
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As such, the current Karoshi statistics state that there have been between 1900 and 2700 work-related deaths, every year, between 2010-2020. It should be noted, however, that karoshi and karojisatsu are two different things. The latter, translates to “overwork suicide”. It’s hard to differentiate the two, when karoshi itself can be seen as self-harm. But, for the sake of definitions, we’ll work with karoshi only, in this article.

It’s important to note, however, that it’s not just East-Asian cultures that suffer from karoshi. The American Institute of Stress reports 120,000 people die every year as a direct result of work-related stress, in the USA. Meanwhile, in the UK, reports find that there are roughly “828,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2019/20”

Is It Possible To Be Worked To Death?

Technically – technically – you can’t work yourself to death from the job you actually do. You can, however, make yourself incredibly ill. Both physically and mentally. Not to mention that stress itself is a common cause of a wide range of different health concerns. The most notable of which include heart disease, cancer, diabetes and even cirrhosis, alongside many more.

exhaustion through work
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The reality, therefore, is that “death from overwork” is entirely possible, albeit indirectly. But, since karoshi is not currently written as a cause of death on certificates, we can’t give exact overwork death statistics. However, karoshi symptoms and symptoms from depression, anxiety and stress are all very similar. Most likely because they’re often in direct correlation with each other.

How Common is Karoshi?

While the stats for karoshi in Japan can be seen above, the stats across the rest of the world are harder to come by. Since we don’t currently use the term as freely in the Western world, all we can rely on are more general statistics. All of which are relating to injuries and ill-health.

According to the British Safety Council, the numbers aren’t looking too great on our side of the world. Their site states that “The total number of workers suffering from work-related [in 2019/2020.] ill health is 1.6 million, an increase of 15 per cent on 2018/19.” Steve Perkins, who runs a health solutions agency, comments on these numbers within the article. In it, he states, “111 accident fatalities, but 13,000 ill-health deaths. Two statistics separated by one report page. But a world of difference in terms of focus and resources in the workplace.”

overwork from death
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As such, until our employers begin to understand the importance of these issues, we need to do everything we can to support ourselves. As well as caring for ourselves, generally, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of a breakdown. More importantly, where possible, create boundaries. It comes from a place of great priviledge to say this – but it’s important. Ensuring your boss doesn’t call you in to work on days you previously agreed were off, for example. They might not like it, but your personal life is just as important as your professional life (if not more so).

Of course, if they don’t listen, we can always try lying flat.



Editor-in-chief, lover of UX/UI and copywriter by trade. Wendy can usually be found ranting to herself over on Twitter, educating herself about health and wellness, parenting or gaming. Luckily, she doesn't do all of these things at the same time - though you'd be surprised how often they cross over.

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