If You're Feeling Overworked, Just Think About How the Japanese Must Feel

June 1, 1993
When it comes to work, only the Japanese put in longer hours than U.S. workers. According to Juliet Schor, associate professor of economics at Harvard University and author of The Overworked American, Japanese office workers log 225 hours (or six work weeks) more each year than U.S. employees.

The Japanese also suffer from karoshi (death by overwork). Karoshi is a documented ailment in which people develop illnesses and die from high stress and the pressures of overtime work.

The Japanese officially recognized karoshi as a fatal illness in 1989. Its symptoms include high blood pressure and asthmatic-like problems. The first person who died of karoshi (officially) was a 48-year-old man who typically worked 15-hour days at an Osaka-based company. The man had worked at least 100 hours of overtime every month for the past year, and had worked 15 hours for three consecutive days just before he died.

The state recognized the cause of his death as overwork, and awarded his widow an allowance of more than $2,000 per month. More recently, a bank teller died of overwork at age 23, after an acute asthma attack. According to newspaper reports, this type of phenomenon isn't unexpected, especially in Japan's banking industry.

Because of intense competition, working conditions have become very pressured. For example, Japanese banks introduced computerized systems to speed up transactions, and simultaneously made dramatic cuts in their number of full-time employees. In 1975, for example, approximately 8,000 women worked at Fuji Bank. Only 4,900 were employed there in 1989.

In 1990, the Labor Ministry received 777 applications for compensation because of karoshi. The problem is becoming more prevalent. Some Japanese doctors say that they're finding more stress among their female patients. The symptoms of stress include fatigue, eating disorders, skin problems and hair loss.

A recent study conducted by the Fukoku Life Insurance Co. in Japan and cited in the Chicago Tribune stated that a majority of Japanese workers in their prime feel mentally fatigued every day, and many workers are afraid of dropping dead from overwork. It draws a picture of workers who drag themselves to work and are afraid to take vacation time.

The survey included 500 employees who had had more than 15 years' experience with their respective companies. It found that:

  • 80% of Japanese workers want to sleep more
  • 70% feel stressed
  • 44% feel constant fatigue
  • 42% fear death from overwork
  • 28% lack creativity and motivation
  • 23% feel a frequent desire to call in sick.

The problem hasn't gone unnoticed. The Bureau of National Affairs Inc. in Washington, D.C., recently reported that Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa has proposed legislation aimed at encouraging the country's citizens to work less.

For now, Japanese workers still work 10% longer than average U.S. employees. That's nothing to be proud of, however. U.S. employees work more than 320 hours a year longer than French and German employees, who have much higher rates of productivity and longer vacation times to boot.

Personnel Journal, June 1993, Vol. 72, No. 6, p. 58.