Are You Working Yourself to Death?

In 1969 a 29-year old Japanese man who worked in the shipping department of Japan’s largest newspaper died from a stress-related stroke. His death is now considered the first known case of karoshiin the world. Karoshi translates as “death from overwork.” We’re talking stroke, heart-attack, internal hemorrhaging, and other stress-induced conditions that besiege the over-worked, over-pressured employees of the world.

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In the late 1980s to 90s, after the crash of Japan’s Bubble Economy, the Japanese government began collecting statistics on the sudden rise in stress-related workforce deaths. That’s when karoshi really made its way onto the public stage. Families began suing companies for the deaths of their loved-ones, and companies instituted karoshi prevention programs and resources.

Unfortunately it’s not easy to transform the habits and expectations of an entire workforce. Here’s a poignant example from Tofugu, a Japanese language and culture blog:

Mitsubishi UFJ Trust & Banking has a program that allows employees to go home up to three hours early to care for children or elderly relatives. Only 34 out of 7,000 employees are signed up for the program.

There’s only one reason I can see behind those numbers: competition. If an employee falls behind his coworkers by taking time off, he’s only adding to his stress level. That’s not going to help the karoshi factor one bit.

That’s why it’s so important to institute an overall company culture of work-life balance.

That brings us to Millennials.

The global backlash of work-related deaths is that now the children of the karoshi generation are settling into careers themselves, and they want nothing to do with that lifestyle. Millennials are known for demanding a workplace that offers a flexible schedule, supportive team members, etc – and when they get it, the company thrives. Here are some great examples of industries that use creative measures to kick karoshi to the curb.

Customer Service is a particularly demanding line of work. It means waiting on people, responding to their demands with kindness, and navigating the subtle social customs of the environment with grace. It should be no surprise then that one of the most creative, employee-friendly companies is an airline. Southwest Airlines puts on a fashion show in the sky every year between New York and Chicago. Sometimes the key to happiness is simply mixing up the norm. Especially when the norm is tomato juice and peanuts.

Marketing Companies can get pretty dull. It’s no coincidence that marketing and social media firms are some of the frontrunners in the ‘company culture’ game. Marketing takes creativity, and when creative-types have to be at the desk, they at least want to have some fun doing it. For example, marketing firm Brandstar has dogs on their About Us page, lest things get too serious. One can’t help but wonder if they have a bring your dog to work day too. And who’s the lucky sap who gets to walk them all (at once, obviously)?

Industry. Assembly lines, supply chains, complex networks. Here, if one thing goes wrong, the whole project is hit. Hundreds of workers are affected. The stress level in this sort of environment can go through the roof. In an attempt to battle unhealthy amounts of workplace stress, General Electric recently granted unlimited paid time-off for its Management employees. Cruise ship directors be warned: the GE execs are on their way.

The first step in broaching a subject like karoshi is to talk about it openly. We’re all in this together, and stressing ourselves out until we die is not the endgame.

The second step is taking action.

So go, get out, take a walk and bring a coworker with you.

Author: Brooke Faulkner is a freelance writer and mother of two. Her career ambition is to own a treadmill desk.