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Death from Overwork

Although the notorious strenuous overworking culture in Eastern Asia has been a widespread phenomenon that was recognised by the authorities for decades, there is still a considerable amount of workers suffering from overworking in various ways. In comparison to most European countries, the working environments in Eastern Asia are less laid-back, and these societies perceive working long days as hard-working, which is often praised. For instance, Japan is one of those countries that still possesses the toxic working culture and where the issue comes under the spotlight from time to time. By 2015, claims of ‘death by overwork’ had risen to a record high of 2,310, and the statistics are plausibly just the tip of the iceberg as the examination criteria are rather strict. Moreover, more than one-fifth of employees are exposed to high risk of death by overwork as they are clocking at least 80 hours overtime a month, according to one Japanese government investigation in 2016.

The suicide of Ms Takahashi is a devastating case that took place in Japan on the Christmas Day back in 2015. Ms Takahashi was a graduate of the prestigious University of Tokyo, and a former employee of the digital advertising division of Dentsu Inc., which is the biggest advertising agency in Japan in terms of scale and sales revenues. Dentsu Inc. had previously been accused of being directly responsible for the sudden death or suicide of their employees, and it is famous for its harsh discipline on achieving the success and goals of the firm. The death of Ms Takahashi brings back the long-standing discussion on the high stress working culture in Japan, which exposes workers to a high risk of karoshi (過労死), which literally means death from overworking. The investigation revealed that she had suffered from severe workplace bullying, as well as extremely unhealthy long working hours, resulting in the development of her depression and suicidal thoughts. She was forced to work overtime for 105 hours per month in total, and the effort she put into work was taken for granted by her superiors. They even condemned her for being lazy, and that is why she had to work those extra hours. Some might wonder why she did choose to end her life instead of just switching to another company; the answer is tied together with the Japanese working culture as well. In Japan, if a full-time job worker is to quit, it is commonly perceived that he or she must have done something very wrong, and is thus forced to switch to a new firm. No other sensible reasons, such as currently experiencing poor treatment or pursuing personal growth, are reasonable. That is to say, demonstrating loyalty to one’s company and persistence plays an important role in Japanese work ethics, especially when it comes to switching employers; and the consequences of leaving a job can be a tremendous burden when seeking the next employment.

The above-mentioned case is not unusual in Eastern Asia, especially in places where work ethics are Confucian-inspired. Besides Japan, places like South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan are also among the list of countries where overworking is fairly common. For example, South Korea has the second longest working hours in the OECD: employees clocked an average of 2,113 hours in 2015, 43 days more per year than the OECD average. On top of the fact that these governments’ interventions are not making any transformational impact on the long-standing issue, the mentality and the distorted hierarchical organisational structure are actually at the heart of the problematic situation. Furthermore, it is not a coincidence that the countries where overworking are prevalent all possess cultures heavily influenced by Confucianism. The cultures in Eastern Asia are generally more pro-collectivism (group orientated), and people still respect hierarchy and differences in relative socio-economic statuses more than Westerners do. Therefore, by taking into account the incorporation of group thinking concepts into the context of work, it is not difficult to comprehend why these cultures put emphasis on prioritising the achievement and reputation of a group, or the company, instead of the individual. In practice, it somewhat indicates that overworking is deemed as a virtue and that people should feel guilty getting off work early/on time, while others are still staying at the office and dedicating their personal time to the company. This is especially significant in Japan where people even have to apologise for leaving earlier than their colleagues—and if those who stayed are the superiors, most employees would not dare to leave. Thus, on the same note, you may realise that in most of the mass media coverages regarding overworking, the attention is given to the cases and phenomenon in Japan more than other countries. The Japanese society is perceived as much less ‘westernised’ in terms of its culture and social values, which are fundamentally distinctive from the Western society compared to other Eastern Asian countries. We can analyse the unique and complicated working culture in Japan from diverse aspects such as historical influences and social norms that shape the modern Japanese society’s mentality.

After Japan experienced the defeat in World War II, in the hope of reconstructing the nation and regaining economy power, Japanese citizens possessed a strong sense of mission to devote their time to their occupations in post-war Japan. At the same time, employers were content to see this social phenomenon and in response, they provided benefits such as housing subsidies, good insurance, pension and most importantly, some degree of job security. Gradually, most people’s lives revolved around work, some even at a state of workaholism, and Japan became the nation with the longest working hours in the post-WWII era. The famous “life-long employment” (終身雇用) model used by large corporations originated in 1920 turned into the dominant employment model in the post-war era; moreover, it has been employed under such a condition and became the goal of children of the new middle class in the 1960s. The economy continued to prosper and Japan was the world’s third largest economy in terms of GNP in the 1970s. However, in the late 1980s, at the height of the Japanese bubble economy, more and more workers were forced to work more than 60 hours per week. The pressure was especially burdensome for people in the senior level, where an investigation in 1989 revealed that over half of the people in top management levels considered themselves at high risks of death by overwork. More and more white-collar workers fell under the victim of overworking themselves to death, and the government started to published relevant statistics, in which the deceased had to overwork for more than 100 hours per month to be categorised as ‘karoshi’. Things got worse after the entire economy fell apart when the Japanese asset price bubble burst in 1990. The time after the bubble’s collapse, which occurred gradually rather than catastrophically, is known as the “lost decade or end of the 20th century” (失われた10年). With the crash of the economy, the culture of overworking became very common and death from overwork even reached an epidemic level.

In present-day Japan, although the rate of karoshi is still high, both the government and the employers are trying to exert effort to encourage work-life balance, such as policies making it mandatory for workers to take at least five days of paid holiday a year, or measures such as “Premium Friday” to enable the employee to leave earlier on Friday. And because of the decrease in working population resulting from the extremely low birth rate, it is said that the employers are transforming the working condition to the better in order to attract talented employees. One thing to bear in mind is that, if the society’s fundamental mentality towards work ethics does not change, the effects of regulations imposed by the authorities might be very limited. As the saying goes, there is always a countermeasure to the policy. What really matters to the success of a company is the ability to foster highly productive employees and lower the turnover rate of the staff. That is to say, a comfortable working environment and flexible working culture is the key to extract the best out of the employees and make them willing to stick to the organisation longer, and most importantly: preventing them from suffering any occupational hazards.


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