Dying to Work

When asked whether any workers had ever died as a result of excessive work stress or work hours, strike negotiator Patrick Gibbons of the Communication Workers of America said that he could only remember a couple of colleagues who had dropped dead on the job during his 30 years as field technician.  “Lots of others,” he said, “had heart attacks after work.”

– Quoted in the New Internationalist, March 2002

On February 9th, 2002, Kenichi Unchino, a quality control manager at Toyota, suffered heart failure whilst at work, and died. Heart failure is one of the leading causes of death in the developed world, so it is not surprising that some people suffer from heart attacks at work. What makes this case unusual is that Mr Unchino was only 30 years old, and had no history of heart problems. He had, however, worked 106 hours of overtime over the course of the preceding month.

Mr Unchino was a victim of Karoshi, A Japanese word which translates literally as “death from overwork” – karo means overwork, shi means death. The first formally recorded case was of a 29-year-old worker in the shipping department of Japan’s largest newspaper who died of a stroke – but the condition is almost certainly as old as work itself. In June, 1863, a number of London newspapers reported the case of a 24-year-old female garment worked who died of “simple overwork” having consistently averaged over 16 hours of work a day for months on end.

Mita Diran was a 24-year-old Indonesian copywriter, working the Jakarta office of Young and Rubicam. Mita loved Dr. Who, Daft Punk, and her boyfriend, Dwen. She also loved to work. Her tweets from 2013 tell a compelling story of her working life.

24th May 2013: Work just tore apart my weekend plans into tiny little sorry pieces. But then again, this is kind of exciting too.

She accepted that her chosen profession was tough, and would make reference to is using the hashtag #AgencyLife

30th September 2013: “One does not simply leave at 6PM.” #AgencyLife

17th October 2013: First day back at work after being sick for three days, and I spend over 12 hours at the office. #AgencyLife

 25th October 2013: So it’s 2AM, Friday night and I’m at the office, nibbling on junk food with 9 other creatives. I’m actually okay with this. #AgencyLife

25th October 2013: 4.45 AM and I’m finally home

Things became a little bit more stressful for Mita over the course of November, work seemed to become less something to be enjoyed, more endured:

6th November 2013: Spent half the night writing copy and finishing up a 23-page deck with a glass of vodka/red bull mix and now I can’t sleep. SO BEAR WITH ME

8th November 2013: Alright, one full week of going home past 2am from the office. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we just broke a record.

15th November 2013: Sweetest sleep I’ve had in a long time. It’s a shame I’m supposed to wake up uh, ONE HOUR earlier. Slept through 3 phone calls and 3 alarms!

18th November 2013: Home before midnight after three long, exhausting weeks. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

This mission had been accomplished, but it wasn’t long before Mita was back to working punishing hours, as her tweet a few weeks later shows:



This tweet was tragically ironic given her next one. There wasn’t one. Shortly after tweeting that she was still going strong, Mita slipped into a coma and died. A victim of Karoshi.

Another advertising executive, Toshitsugu Yagi, who died from Karoshi in Japan in 1987 also documented his work pressures, but he did so in the form of poems, that were only discovered after his death:

“Can’t it be said that today’s armies of corporate workers are in fact slaves in every sense of the word? They are bought for money. Their worth is measured in working hours. They are powerless to defy their superiors. And these corporate slaves of today don’t even share the simplest pleasures that forced labourers of ages past enjoyed: the right to sit down at the dinner table with their families.”

For those of you who haven’t experienced it, stories of this level of working may sound crazy – how could someone let this happen to themselves? The answer is that, for many the experience is both compounding and exhilarating, you end up running on adrenaline, work becomes all encompassing and, if anything, you want more of it, rather than less. Your working hours become a ready tally of your success, not just in terms of your job, but as a person overall.

Whilst my experiences have not been as extreme as those of Mita Diran, I have had a taste of similar work levels myself. Back in the heady days of the dotcom boom in the year 2000 I was working on an e-commerce project. In the month before launch I worked well over 400 hours, at least 14 hours a day for 30 days in a row. In the day(s) before launch I worked 38 hours straight, getting into the office 7am on Sunday morning (having had five hours sleep) and finally leaving at 9pm on Monday evening – and this was having worked a 25-hour non-stop stretch the previous weekend. I crashed on the Monday night, unsurprisingly, only to be woken at 9am on Tuesday morning by my boss calling to see why I wasn’t at work yet.

Looking back on that time it certainly felt as though there was a tipping point, a moment at which it was clear that I was not going to have any life outside of work for some time, so it seemed logical, desirable even, to make work my all. I was young, I thought I was immortal, I took pride in the number of hours that I worked, and wore my all-nighters like a badge of honour. I was an idiot. I was a hostage.

Karoshi is such a serious issue in Japan that the Labour Ministry publishes data on the number of incidents, and also adjudicates on claims for compensation brought by the families of the deceased. In the latter case, however, it sets a very high threshold for attribution a death to Karoshi. In the case of Mr Yagi, the Ministry refused to recognise his death as being due to overwork, because he had not worked for more than 24 hours continuously at the time of his death, nor had he worked more than 16 hours a day, every day, for the 7 days prior to his collapse. In 1994 they similarly refused to award compensation to the family of a truck driver who had died of a heart attack at the age of 42 having worked 5,700 hours in the preceding year – that is almost 16 hours a day, everyday, including weekends – because he had averaged 6,000 working hours a year, every year for the previous six years. The failure to acknowledge that overwork has a chronic, cumulative, destructive effect is both shocking and depressing – and motivated at least in part by a desire to reduce compensation payments and to not have the public embarrassment of the scale of the problem being widely known.

Death from overwork is not a rare phenomenon. In 2015 the Japanese Ministry of Labour received 1,428 claims for compensation for karoshi- a record high – and this is likely just scratching the surface of the problem. Research in the death rates from heart attacks and strokes suggest that the real figure for Karoshi in Japan is more like 10,000 deaths per year. Awareness of Karoshi has grown in Japan in recent decades – almost all workers have heard of it, and around 40% are worried that it might happen to them – and yet they still work punishingly long hours – why? The answer is that many of them suffer from “workaholism” – working long hours, compelling by an internal drive to do so.

Critically, a key characteristic of workaholism is that sufferers take little or no pleasure from their job – they are not working hard because they enjoy it, they are working hard because they feel that they have no other choice. They are driven by workloads, management pressures and their perception that they are doing what they have to in order to survive. They are prisoners. Are some people simply hard-wired to become workaholics? Research by the academic Atsuko Kanai suggests not, rather, he found that workaholism is more frequently an adaptive behaviour, a means of coping with intense management pressures.

Not all work-induced death is due to “natural causes”, similarly work-related suicide is far from limited to those people who have suffered from bullying – it can often occur simply because people find themselves unable to survive the pressures of work. Between 2008 and 2009, France Telecom (now known internationally under the brand name Orange) had 24 of its workers commit suicide and a further 13 attempt it. One man stabbed himself in the stomach during staff meeting, another threw herself out of a window. Of those who left notes, many said that the stress of work had driven them to kill themselves. One, Mr Jean-Paul Rouannet, was reported as writing in the note that he left for his family:

“Everything the employee (at France Telecom) does is counted: when he or she goes to the toilet; when he eats; when he smokes a cigarette. The workers are even made to wear Wi-Fi ear and mouth pieces so they can deal with calls during their breaks,”.

The Chief Financial Officer of France Telecom at the time, Gervais Pellissier, acknowledged in an interview with Reuters that the “always available” nature of modern office life was placing more pressure upon his workers:

Today for people working in business, whatever the level, whether they are CEO or even first- or second-rank level employees, they are always connected…when you were an average employee in a big corporation 15 years ago, you had no mobile phone or no PC at home. When you were back home, work was out,”

This is the world that many of us wake up to every morning. A world where we feel constantly connected to work. A world where we fear for the financial security of ourselves and our families. A world where we feel that we have to keep working hard simply to survive. A world in which we continually make sacrifices from our personal lives in order to meet the demands of our jobs. A world in which we are stressed, anxious and lose sleep because of work. A world in which our jobs actively harm our health. How many of elements of this world are familiar to you? Do you, too, feel trapped? I know that for much of my working life, I have.