Overwork extracts a high price

Updated: 2012-11-28 08:00

By Cesar Chelala (China Daily)

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When Luo Yang, who was in charge of research and development on the J-15 carrier-based fighter jet, died of a heart attack on Sunday, he was working under extremely stressful conditions. He died on the day that the J-15 completed its first successful landing on the Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier.

For Chinese people, the father of China's carrier jet was a hero. No wonder many Chinese media outlets expressed their respect for Luo's contribution to the cause of carrier jets. He fully deserved such praise. However, some of the media should think twice before encouraging more people to follow Luo's example and work even harder.

Working hard is a virtue. But people overworking at the cost of their health or even their life incur a greater loss than the contribution they should have made.

For many experts, Luo's death from overwork in such stressful conditions, was an example of what the Japanese call karoshi, literally translated as "death from overwork", or occupational sudden death, whose main causes are heart attacks and strokes due to stress.

Karoshi has been widely studied in Japan, where the first case of this phenomenon was reported in 1969. It was a 29-year-old married man, working in the shipping department of Japan's largest newspaper company. However, it wasn't until the end of the 1980s that the media paid attention to this problem, after several high-ranking business executives, still in the primes of their lives, suddenly died without any previous signs of illness.

In 1987, as people's concerns about karoshi increased, the Japanese Ministry of Labor began to publish statistics on the problem. Lawsuits have been on the rise in Japan, prompted by the relatives of those who have died from overwork demanding compensation.

In the 1990s, karoshi deaths increased dramatically as the financial crisis gripped Japan. Increasingly, employers hired more temporary staff, who can more easily be laid off during difficult times. Fear of unemployment leads these workers to work harder and for longer hours.

Death from overwork is not limited to Japan, however. Other Asian nations such as China, South Korea and Bangladesh have reported similar incidents. In China, where this phenomenon is called guolaosi, an estimated number of 600,000 people died from overwork every year in past years . Increasingly, Chinese workers are organizing and demanding better work conditions. In South Korea, where the work ethic is Confucian-inspired, and work usually involves six-day workweeks with long hours, this phenomenon is called gwarosa.

In Japan, the number of cases submitted for compensation has increased significantly in the last few years. So has the number of court cases when the government refuses to compensate the victims' families. In Japan, if a death is considered karoshi, surviving family members may receive compensation from the government and up to $1 million from the company in damages. However, death may be only the tip of the iceberg of this phenomenon, just the most visible effect of overwork in Japan.

The causes and consequences of karoshi have been particularly studied in Japan, where the National Defense Council for Victims of Karoshi was established in 1988. Japan, has much longer working hours that any other developed country. The country's grueling work schedule has been suggested as one of the main causes of karoshi, but it is not the only cause.

A growing body of evidence indicates that workers in high demand situations, who also have low control of their work and who have low social support have an increased risk of developing and dying of cardiovascular disease, including myocardial infarctions and stroke. Stressful work conditions are a critical component of this phenomenon. In this regard, it has been found that workers exposed to long overtime periods show markedly elevated levels of stress hormones.

The consequences of long working hours and stressful situations at work are not limited to men. Several studies have shown strong links between women's work stress and cardiovascular disease. In the Women's Health Study - a landmark study involving 17,000 female health professionals - a group of Harvard researchers found that women whose work is highly stressful have a 40 percent increased risk of heart disease compared with their less stressed colleagues.

The results of the WHS have been confirmed both in Denmark and in China. A comprehensive 15-year study in Denmark found that the greater the work pressure, the higher the risk of heart disease among women aged 51 and under. In Beijing, a study among white-collar workers found that job-related stress was associated in women with an increased thickness of the wall of the carotid artery, an early predictor of stroke.

Deaths by overwork affect not only the families that may lose the main breadwinner, but also the industries that will increasingly be affected by more lawsuits and lost productivity. The situation, in turn, will also affect the national economy. Therefore it is imperative to devise a series of steps aimed at curbing this problem.

It is important for workers to get regular exercise, which will reduce anxiety and depression and improve sleep. In addition, it is important for them to develop supportive relationships with friends, families and co-workers. Whenever possible, they should practice relaxation techniques and, if they feel overwhelmed by their personal situation, they should seek help from a health professional.

Companies should provide their workers with the best conditions for their work, a policy that will be of better economic value in the long run. Management should realize that it is counterproductive for them to place excessive demands on their workers.

Legislation should be passed increasing job security and skills training, as well as employees' participation in issues that directly concern them such as transfers and promotions. Workers should have better control of their own jobs, which will increase productivity and reduce stress. In the long run, prevention is the best way to address this very serious problem.

The author is an international public health consultant and a winner of Overseas Press Club of America Award.