Turns out “worked to death” isn’t just a phrase used by busy employees. Recent government figures say it actually happens.
Legislation passed 18 months ago in Japan required the country to track the number of “deaths by overwork,” known as “karoshi.”
Karoshi can take the form of a fatal heart attack or stroke, or a suicide. Many of the victims are young – people in their 20s and 30s.
Japanese labor ministry figures show that 189 deaths were classified as death by overwork last year, according to The Washington Post. Experts believe the actual number may be in the thousands.
The family of a karoshi victim is automatically entitled to compensation through a system similar to workers’ compensation in the U.S.
Japanese government figures show the number of claims for karoshi cases rose to a record high of 2,310 in the year ending in March. However, less than a third of applications are successful.
It’s common for many Japanese workers to put in more than 60 hours a week on a regular basis, and on top of that, not take all their allotted vacation time each year.
The long work weeks became ingrained in Japanese society over the course of the last 40 years.
It started in the 1970s when wages were relatively low and workers wanted to earn more. It continued in the boom years of the 1980s when workers made the most of the growing economy.
When the bubble burst in the late 1990s, employees stayed late at their jobs for fear of losing them. It’s stayed that way ever since.
The same law that required tracking of karoshi cases also sets targets to reduce the phenomenon, such as lowering the percentage of employees working more than 60 hours a week to 5% by 2020 instead of the current 8-9%. Another goal is for workers to take at least 70% of their allowed leave time.
The Post’s recent article tells the story of Kiyotaka Serizawa, a 34-year-old who killed himself after working extreme hours – 90 per week. He did maintenance at apartment buildings. Three weeks after he went missing, his body was found in his car. He’d burned briquettes in his car and died from carbon monoxide poisoning. His death has been officially categorized as karoshi. He is survived by his parents.
U.S. courts have recognized the concept of being worked to death. Last year we wrote about the death of Robert Dietz, a maintenance worker for a municipality. Dietz put in 14+ hours one day, including use of a jackhammer for hours. He died on the job of a heart attack. A state court granted his widow workers’ comp death benefits that could include 60% of her husband’s wages and up to $3,000 for burial. The court relied on medical testimony to rule that Dietz’s heart attack was work-related.