Japan is facing a 'death by overwork' problem - here's how companies are combatting it
- In Japan, it's so common for employees to work themselves to death that there's a word for it: Karoshi.
- After a 24-year-old employee of Japan's largest advertising firm killed herself in 2015, the government and major corporations have started instituting work-life balance policies.
- Some policies are zany, like forcing employees who work late to wear purple "embarrassment capes," and flying drones around the office that play music when it's time to leave.
In Japan, corporate life is so intense there's actually a word to refer to people dying from overworking: Karoshi, which literally translates to "death by overwork."
In 2013, 31-year-old journalist Miwa Sado logged 159 hours of overtime in one month at the news network NHK, before dying of heart failure in July 2013. And in 2015, a 24-year-old employee of Japanese advertising behemoth Dentsu jumped to her death off a balcony in a company dorm room - where she lived - after working more than 100 hours in the month leading up to her suicide, USA Today reports.
This intense culture is a product of Japan's postwar era, where, in an effort to get the country's economic engines running, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida enlisted major corporations to offer their employees lifelong job security, asking only that workers repay them with loyalty.
Employees who spent longer on the job were rewarded for decades until employees started suffering from health effects, and in rare cases, dying.
According to Nippon, a Japanese news agency, corporations try to circumvent the restrictions the Japanese government has placed on working hours in recent years by encouraging employees to falsify how much overtime they worked.
A 2016 report examining karoshi cases and their cause of death found that more than 20% of people in a survey of 10,000 Japanese workers said they worked at least 80 hours of overtime a month.
While major corporations are forced to pay out (small) fines when their employees' deaths are ruled as karoshi, there's a wider movement in the country to attack the root of the issue: An oppressive and overbearing work culture.
First, employees are pressured by management, and their colleagues, to regularly put in work "off the clock," - that is, work they don't report as part of their overtime hours, lest they fall behind their targets. And second, through an arcane portion of the Labor Standards Act, companies are free to negotiate directly with employees for working more than eight hours a day.
But some companies, including one Tokyo-based IT firm, are turning to novel strategies to combat overwork. The firm forces employees to wear purple "embarrassment capes" if they worked late on the third Wednesday every month, according to NBC.
The tactic reduced the amount of overtime employees worked in half, Yoshie Komuro, the head of Work-Life Balance, a firm that helps companies reduce overtime work, told NBC.
Another zany solution some Japanese companies have implemented seem straight out of a sci-fi movie. Three companies told NBC they were developing a drone to fly around their offices and play music to any lingering employees at night, in an effort to get them out of the office.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised in 2017 to institute work-life balance reforms, including capping the number of overtime hours employees can work and paying part-time workers better, reports Reuters.
Employees are still skeptical.
"My company says it's promoting work reform, but I am doing as much overtime as before. I even work on Saturdays," a bank employee told Reuters.
After all, this is a place where ad firm Dentsu only had to pay the equivalent to a $5,000 fine after an employee killed herself from overwork.
Chris Weller contributed to this report