Work Smarter//

A Young Woman in Japan Died After Working 159 Hours of Overtime in a Month

It's the latest shocking example of 'karoshi.'

Photo by Oliver Thomas Klein on Unsplash

Another Japanese worker has died from “karoshi,” a word that translates to “death by overwork,” according to the New York Times. The woman died in 2013, but her employer NHK, a Japanese public broadcaster, announced the work conditions that contributed to her death this week.

Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old journalist, died from heart failure in 2013 after working 159 hours of overtime—with only two days off—in the month prior to her death, The Guardian reports. According to the New York Times, “she worked until midnight nearly every night. On her birthday, June 26, less than a month before her death, she emailed her parents, who thought she sounded weak.” (New York Times reporters Makiko Inoue and Megan Specia note that Japanese national guidelines use 100 hours of overtime per month as the metric to determine if a worker is at physical or mental risk.)

In an announcement about why the company waited so long to provide these details, a public relations official for NHK told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that Sado’s family originally wanted the information to remain private. The NHK spokesperson added, “we decided that we needed to disclose it as we are pushing the program to reform the workplace and a way of working, which was spurred by Sado’s death.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve written about karoshi, or the first time a company has vowed to change it’s ways following the death of a young employee due to overwork. In 2016, the chief executive of Dentsu, a large advertising agency in Japan, announced his resignation following a young worker’s suicide, ruled as karoshi by government officials. The Guardian reports that the worker had regularly logged more than 100 hours of overtime a month and posted on social media before her death, “I’m physically and mentally shattered.”

Companies have been speaking out about reforming the workplace to end this problem, but many believe it isn’t enough, just as Premium Friday—a Japanese government initiative that encourages companies to let employees out at 3 p.m. one Friday per month—isn’t catching on. The government has also tried to encourage employers to turn the lights off at 7 p.m. to try and force people out of the office.

Sado was a reporter who was covered local elections, according to the New York Times. Political reporters are often subject to unusual and often grueling hours no matter where they work. But Sado’s situation was likely exacerbated by Japan’s work culture, which is known for pushing employees to prioritize their work before everything else, including their health.

The Shibuya Labor Standard Inspection Office told the Asahi Shimbun that Sado “was under circumstances that she could not secure enough days off due to responsibilities that required her to stay up very late.” A Shibuya official added, “it can be inferred that she was in a state of accumulate fatigue and chronic sleep deprivation.”

This is indicative of a dangerous situation young Japanese workers often find themselves in, one that BBC’s Edwin Lane wrote about earlier this year. Lane wrote these workers don’t have the same job security as they did a few decades ago. Makoto Iwahashi, who works for an organization running a helpline for Japanese workers, told Lane that “young workers think they don’t have any other choice,” adding, “if you don’t quit you have to work 100 hours. If you quit you just can’t live.”

Despite everything we know about how dangerous it is to work these types of hours, these continuing headlines show that overwork remains a serious problem around the world. And while incidents like Sado’s death can put pressure on companies to create healthier work policies, such measures won’t work unless young employees feel encouraged to prioritize their mental and physical well-being instead of their next deadline.

Read more on the New York Times

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