Are we at risk from Karshi?

April 23rd, 2018

Written by Katy Winship

So firstly, unless you’re fluent in Japanese, you’re probably thinking “what the heck is Karōshi?” Am I right? Well, let me explain. Karōshi is a phenomenon in Japan that started in the 1970’s and is a term that basically translates as "death by overwork". It’s no myth; I’m talking about people that have died in their twenties from heart attacks, strokes and suicide.

A regular sight in Tokyo is a late night busy train full of people in business attire. No they’re not going home after a skinful - they just finished work. So it’s no surprise that Karōshi is becoming a very real threat. For many of these workers it has become the norm to work upwards of 80 hours unpaid overtime every month on top of their already higher than average 49 hours a week. Let’s put that in perspective- this is arriving in the office at 7am and not leaving until at least 9pm every single work day.

You might be reading this and thinking “SH%* that is me”- yeah, be warned. This is not a healthy lifestyle; I hope you’re being paid substantially!

Stress due to being overworked is a real thing, especially in Japan- where they also have a word for suicide related to overwork “karojisatsu”. For example; Satoshi Sekigawa committed suicide in 2010 after working 109 hours of overtime in just one month- that’s nearly 3 weeks’ worth of an average working week at 37.5 hours. In the financial year of 2006-7 approximately 350 workers fell ill from overwork and of those 147 died, usually of heart attacks or strokes.

One of the reasons for this is inherent in Japanese culture. Japanese workers have been secured with “lifetime employment” working with a company that secures jobs for life, but in return they dedicate that life to the company, including “service” (unpaid) overtime. But it’s not just Japan where these problems are occurring, the Karōshi phenomenon is also widespread in South Korea, where it is referred to as "Gwarosa" and in China there is a word for over-work induced suicide- "Guolaosi".

I can’t help but wonder how far removed we are in the UK we are from becoming a similar society? What with many of us having access to our work emails from our mobile phones, when are we actually not “at work”?

So how can we avoid Karōshi?

You’ve heard the phrase “proper planning prevents poor performance” right? It’s true. If you set aside time that you want to complete elements of a task the task might not seem so daunting. Try plan out your own schedules and make our expectations clear to ourselves and our colleagues of what is achievable. It might take some leg work at first but if you have an action plan and stick to it things will seem much less stressful.

Focus apps
There are hundreds of apps on the market with the aim to help you be more productive, from ambient noises to social media blocking tools- do some research and find something that will suit your needs and narrow down the distractions.

Water is essential for the body but also the brain. The brain is 85% water so when you’re dehydrated and you notice headaches and lack of focus this could be why. Water reduces your cortisol (stress hormone) levels and many studies have linked depression to dehydration. Keep a large bottle on your desk and keep topping up your glass.

Recognise when others need help and offer it to them where you can. By helping out your colleagues when they are struggling with their workload you can be responsible for creating a culture of helpfulness. If you lead by example you can mould the team around you into being reliable and supportive because they will want to reciprocate.

It might sound ridiculous but have you ever heard of a walking meeting? Exercise is crucial for well-being so get it in where ever you can!

Learn to say No
Saying no is difficult for anyone; often as a nation we’re far too polite. If you have reservations about being able to conduct a task in the given time make them clear. The more we say “yes” the more damage we do to everyone else and demand from other people increases- be careful what you say yes to, it’s a slippery slope.

Ask for help
Why is there such a stigma around asking for help? If you’ve been tasked with too much work then maybe it’s your boss who needs to look at their practices and not you. As a nation we’re often too cautious to ask for help when we need it, leaving things until the 11th hour to reach out.

Focusing on one thing at a time
Distractions occur too easily- you get a text message and it’s distracting, you get an email- distracting, a phone call- distracting! Everything you aimed to achieve by lunch time hasn’t happened because you have lost your focus. Try and do one job at a time. Don’t give your attention to other tasks. Turn your out-of-office on if necessary to help focus because multi-tasking often means not completing one task well, just completing many tasks to a lower standard.

Take breaks
Make sure you leave your desk at lunch time or at least stop doing work in the “you-time”. Use this time wisely and get anything that might distract you out of the way.

Review job descriptions
How many jobs do you do that aren’t in your original job description? Why not request a job description review with your manager. Compile a list of tasks you are responsible for and show it to your boss, you both might be surprised. It’s a great way of outlining expectations, addressing concerns and setting boundaries.

There’s a long way to go before the UK catches up with Japan’s overtime problem but maybe not as far as you’d think. An article published on 23rd February 2018 said that as UK employees work over £31 billion worth of unpaid overtime every year workers only really started getting paid 2018’s salary from that day (so almost 2 months of the year).TUC general secretary, Frances O'Grady, knows that this is problematic "Lots of us are willing to put in a bit of extra time when it's needed, but it's a problem if it happens all the time. Good bosses know that a long-hours culture doesn't get good results, and the best way to lead is by example."