Overwork extracts a high price
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 29year-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 highranking 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.