A 24-year-old's death after working 105 overtime hours in one month causes Japan to rethink work-life balance


In Japanese the word is karoshi, or "death from overwork."


The latest karoshi victim was 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi who worked for the Japanese ad agency Dentsu and reportedly logged 105 overtime hours in one month. At work she tried to maintain appearances, but on Twitter she spoke the truth.

"It's 4 a.m. My body's trembling," she reportedly said in one post. "I'm going to die. I'm so tired."

Takahashi leapt from the company dormitory around Christmas last year. This past Wednesday, December 28, Dentsu's president and chief executive Tadashi Ishii announced he would resign in March.

Japan's government has been trying desperately over the last several years to change the cultural attitudes toward work. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched a "work style reform" panel seeking to make time off more alluring for Japanese workers.


Though the results have been mixed, some private companies have started to lead the change.

Dentsu, for its part, now forces people to take at least five days off every six months. It also shuts the lights off every night at 10 p.m. as an incentive for people to head home.

Other companies have opted to shift their allowable overtime hours to the morning. The trading house Itochu Corp. opens its doors at 5 a.m. for anyone who wants to avoid staying late at the office. Employees who show up early get treated to a light breakfast and earn the same extra wages they would have gotten at the end of the day.

But as Abe's reform signals, the country has larger issues related to overtime that it must address for the sake of public health.

A report from October, which examined karoshi cases and their cause of death, found that more than 20% of people in a survey of 10,000 said they worked at least 80 hours of overtime a month. And compared to the US, where 16.4% of people work an average of 49 hours or longer each week, in Japan more than 20% do. Half of all respondents said they give up taking paid vacations.


As per the report, many of the overwork deaths were caused either by suicide, heart failure, heart attack, or stroke - all of which can be brought on by excessive stress.

Other companies have gotten more creative with how they encourage people to work less. At the Tokyo-based nursing care business Saint-Works, employees wear purple capes that display the time they should leave the office - an effort to erase all doubt when the day is over.

According to the South China Morning Post, people at the company are working half as many overtime hours since 2012, while profits continue to grow year over year.

The research into productivity suggests other firms would see similar gains if they required people to work less. After a certain threshold, extra time spent on tasks doesn't equate to extra output. As Sachio Ichinose told the SCMP, the extra hours only serve to make people more burnt-out.

"New ideas do not pop up after meetings are extended an extra two to three hours," he said. "Work becomes productive when it is balanced out with your private life."


If the new measures are successful, both employers and their workers will come to take that sentiment to heart.

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