‘Karoshi’ – are your staff working to death?

By Robert Half on 18 November 2016

There is no word in Japanese to describe ‘work-life balance’. There is, however, a word for ‘working to death’ – karoshi.

In 2015 alone, The Telegraph reported a record 1,456 legal claims have been made in Japan to compensate the families of karoshi victims. This statistic includes Japanese white collar professionals who have died due to overwork.

A 2016 article by The Japanese Times found nearly 1 in 4 companies have admitted that some employees do more than 80 hours of overwork per month. By industry, the most overworked employees were found in the IT industry, with 44.4% surveyed contributing to the above statistic.

While the epidemic of karoshi exemplifies the far extreme of work overload, what can companies and managers today learn from this situation to ensure a work-life balance for their staff?

The origins of karoshi

First discovered in 1969 when a shipping worker died of a stroke, karoshi became a mainstream phenomenon in Japan during the bubble economy of the 1980s. A case study by the International Labour Organisation found that high-ranking executives in their prime were stricken with fatal cardiovascular diseases from overwork, causing the Japanese government to start monitoring this increasing phenomenon.

The prevalence of karoshi in Japan is linked to the extreme application of a much-lauded business concept of kaizen, or ‘continuous development’. According to research by John Hopkins University, many Japanese firms interpret kaizen to mean work which is conducted with the least amount of time wasted, justifying many hours of overtime to ‘increase efficiency’.

Work-life balance across Asia today

Cases of karoshi have also been reported outside of Japan. Just two years ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Taiwan reported 40 karoshi claims amongst its citizens. Bloomberg has also reported cases of karoshi in China, citing figures of up to 1,600 cases daily.

This situation isn’t as prevalent elsewhere in Asia, but there are professionals who still engage in long working hours. The China Daily reports that Hong Kong holds the dubious title for the longest working hours in the world, with a national average of 50 hours a week. According to a survey conducted by Today Online, Singapore also has a reputation for long working hours at the expense of family time.

Encouraging a better work-life balance

Work-life balance is becoming a popular discussion point that is being embraced by many organisations. The Straits Times reports that many Singaporean firms now offer more flexibility with working hours and telecommuting. These actions to mitigate the stresses and challenges of work are becoming increasingly popular among employee expectations in today’s workforce.

Given the fast pace and high demands of business today, managers and companies need to encourage a work-life balance among their employees. Here are some ways to start:

  1. Encourage effective work delegation. If your staff have too much on their plate, explore the option to divide their tasks amongst the team. Identify what tasks are specifically handled by team members, and what general tasks can potentially be re-distributed to other team members to accomplish.
  2. Set realistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations often lead to last-minute crunch time. To prevent deadline-related overwork, plan and present projects in achievable timeframes. This ensures that your team gets ample time to deliver high-quality work and cover for unexpected delays.
  3. Consider flexible working hours. Your employees may have to endure a long commute to and from the office, which also contributes to overall work stress. Flexible working hours allow your staff to work when they’re most alert, which increases employee productivity as well as improves their well-being.
  4. Train employees in time management skills. Some employees end up taking longer to complete projects because they have not learned skills such as prioritising tasks or using productivity-enhancing technology. For employees facing these challenges, training in areas such as time management techniques and tech mastery will help them improve work turnaround time.

Smarter work-life policies

The case of karoshi in Japan has represented a great imbalance in office culture that has led to many re-thinking the vital importance of working conditions and looking after the welfare of staff.

The benefits of encouraging a work-life balance can institute a focus for both employees and employers to understand the importance of harmonising between the workspace and home.

The issue of work-life balance however is a constant challenge today, as mobile phones and an always-connected lifestyle can sometimes blurs the line between working hours and personal time.

What is interesting to consider is that while karoshi is the result of far exceeded productivity, having a work-life balance can equally improve productivity and benefit the interests of an organisation.

If companies foster a positive work culture that motivates and looks after employees, karoshi will hopefully become a thing of the past.

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