In Japanese the word is karoshi, or “death from overwork.”
The latest victim to be announced as a case of karoshi is 31-year-old Miwa Sado, who worked for the Japanese news network NHK and reportedly logged 159 overtime hours in one month before she died of heart failure in July 2013. She had taken just two days off the prior month, the Guardian reports.
Japan’s government has been trying desperately over the past several years to change the cultural attitudes toward work. In early 2016, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched a “work style reform” panel seeking to make time off more alluring for Japanese workers.
Though the results have been mixed, some private companies have started to make changes.
Japanese ad agency Dentsu, for its part, now requires people to take at least five days off every six months. It also shuts the lights off every night at 10 p.m. as an incentive for people to head home.
The move came in response to the death of Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old employee who committed suicide on Christmas Day 2015, after logging 105 hours of overtime in one month. At work Takahashi tried to maintain appearances, but on Twitter she spoke the truth. “It’s 4 a.m. My body’s trembling,” she reportedly said in one post. “I’m going to die. I’m so tired.”
Dentsu President and CEO, Tadashi Ishii, announced his resignation in March 2016.
Other companies have opted to shift their allowable overtime hours to the morning. The trading house Itochu Corp. opens its doors at 5 a.m. for anyone who wants to avoid staying late at the office. Employees who show up early get treated to a light breakfast and earn the same extra wages they would have gotten at the end of the day.
But as Abe’s reform signals, the country has larger issues related to overtime that it must address for the sake of public health.
A 2016 report examining karoshi cases and their cause of death found that more than 20% of people in a survey of 10,000 Japanese workers said they worked at least 80 hours of overtime a month. In the US, 16.4% of people work an average of 49 hours or longer each week. In Japan, more than 20% do, according to the report. Half of all respondents said they don’t take paid vacations.
As per the report, many of the overwork deaths were caused by suicide, heart failure, heart attack, or stroke — all of which can be brought on by excessive stress.
Other companies have gotten creative with how they encourage people to work less. At the Tokyo-based nursing care business Saint-Works, employees wear purple capes that display the time they should leave the office — an effort to erase all doubt when the day is over.
According to the South China Morning Post, people at the company are working half as many overtime hours since 2012, while profits continue to grow year-over-year.
The research into productivity suggests other firms would see similar gains if they required people to work less. After a certain threshold, extra time spent on tasks doesn’t equate to extra output. As Sachio Ichinose told the SCMP, the extra hours make people more burned out.
“New ideas do not pop up after meetings are extended an extra two to three hours,” he said. “Work becomes productive when it is balanced out with your private life.”
If the new measures are successful, both employers and their workers will come to take that sentiment to heart.