Can you work yourself to death?

Source: BBC

By Zaria Gorvett

The Japanese have a knack for inventing words – and there are some that every self-respecting office worker should have in their vocabulary. There’s arigata-meiwaku: when someone does you a favour that you didn’t ask them to – which actually caused you massive inconvenience – but you’re socially obliged to thank them anyway. Or how about majime: an earnest, dependable colleague who can get things done without causing any drama.

But by 2015, claims of ‘death by overwork’ had risen to a record high of 2,310

But there’s one uniquely Japanese term you don’t want to relate to: karoshi, which translates as “death by overwork”.

Reports of the nation’s corporate breadwinners, known as “salarymen”, dropping dead from overwork have been making headlines for decades.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Death from overwork is a recognised problem in Japan – some put the number of deaths as high as 10,000 (Credit: Getty Images)

But is it just urban legend?

Well, no. The social phenomenon was first recognised in 1987, when the health ministry began logging cases after the sudden deaths of a string of high-flying executives.

After the defeat of the Second World War, the Japanese worked the longest hours in the world by far – they were workaholics of the highest order – Cary Cooper

So widespread is the issue, that in Japan, if a death is judged karoshi, the victim’s family receives compensation from the government of around $20,000 per year and company payouts of up to $1.6 million.

Initially, the government was documenting a couple of hundred cases every year. But by 2015, claims had risen to a record high of 2,310, according to a report by the Japanese Labour Ministry. This may be the tip of the iceberg. According to the National Defence Council for Victims of Karoshi, the true figure may be as high as 10,000 – roughly the same number of people killed each year by traffic.

(Credit: Alamy)

It’s not just Japan – many emerging economies are experiencing problems with overwork (Credit: Alamy)

But can you really die from overwork? Or is it just a case of old age and undiagnosed medical conditions? In an increasingly well-connected world, where technology keeps us in the loop 24-7, work hours are creeping up. Could karoshi be going on unrecognised elsewhere?

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