Over­work ex­tracts a high price

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Ce­sar Chelala

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.

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