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karōshi

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Karōshi is a Japanese word meaning death from overwork; the official cause is most often heart attack, stroke or suicide. 

The International Labour Organization lists the following potential factors for karōshi: long work hours, heavy workloads, lack of job control, routine and repetitive tasks, interpersonal conflicts, inadequate rewards, employment insecurity and organizational problems. Suicides prompted by overwork and stressful working conditions are referred to as karojisatsu.

The karōshi phenomenon was first identified in Japan in 1969 when a 29-year-old man in the shipping department of a newspaper died of stroke. Karōshi became more common among executives in the late 1980s. The Japanese Ministry of Labor has been maintaining statistics on karōshi since 1987. Hundreds of workers a year are officially identified as karōshi victims, although the unofficial total is thought to number in the thousands. 

Although karōshi and karojisatsu (suicide from overwork and stressful working conditions) were first identified in Japan, the concepts are becoming increasingly recognized in the western world as a result of traditional corporate cultures, which tend to emphasize a clear and immediate path to profitability and to resist actions for which the return on investment (ROI) is not immediately demonstrable and clearly measurable.

Companies frequently reduce the size of their staff as a means of increasing profits, for example, while demanding that prior levels of productivity are sustained. Those demands, and the inability to meet them, can lead to stress, employee churn and burnout. Meanwhile, middle management forced to impose both cutbacks and unreasonable demands on employees may be equally stressed.

See Tony Schwartz's presentation on productivity myths and gaining control over our personal energy:

This was last updated in May 2015

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We used to laugh at the idea of "karoshi" and how it seemed to be specific to Japan (I remember well hearing about this in the late 80's and thinking "that couldn't happen here"). Sadly, it looks as though it is happening here, and may become more pronounced as the ability to live and work in desirable areas becomes ever more out of reach for many. I certainly don't meant to sound like a Luddite, but there is a protracted sense of the globalization of work and the nature of it that is going to be in play for a long time. How we adapt to it will say a lot about us as a global society, for good or ill.
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