Overwork a silent killer in Japan

TOKYO (AFP) - Pushed to their limits, thousands of Japanese are literally working themselves to death each year, a scourge the Asian power has started to address but which could get worse in the global economic crisis.
Sadako, a young woman working at an art gallery in Tokyo, said that she suffers from stress night and day.

Overwork a silent killer in Japan
"Employees work like crazy and the atmosphere is hectic, particularly in peak periods when everybody works late into the night," she said.
Even leaving the office is no relief. "Often we go out with colleagues at night to dwell on the bad things during the day and our problems with the bosses. There's no room to breathe." she said.
The Japanese call the problem "karoshi," or death by overwork. And with the global downturn sapping demand for Japanese exports and leading companies to slash jobs, the stress on workers is becoming even more severe.
A survey carried out in October by Japan's main labour union federation Rengo found that 53 percent of workers say they have recently been suffering more stress.
While for some the overwork is simply annoying, for others it causes everything from poor blood circulation to arteriosclerosis to strokes.
"Neither the government nor businesses offer figures that completely take stock of the problem," said Hiroshi Kawahito, a lawyer who represents relatives of karoshi victims.
Police say that more than 2,200 Japanese committed suicide due to work conditions in 2007.
But Kawahito said that figure represented only a fraction of the problem. He estimated some 10,000 workers in the same year suffered heart attacks or strokes, which were sometimes fatal, due to stress.
He said that fewer than 10 percent of the incidents were reported to authorities or companies because of the long time it takes to certify cases and the fair chance the effort will be in vain.
In 2007, 58 percent of people who sought compensation for a loved one's karoshi had their application refused. However, this was still a big improvement on 20 years ago when 95 percent of cases were rejected.
"There is growing public pressure for this scourge to be better recognised," Kawahito said.
In May 2007, the head of a construction site in the Tochigi region north of Tokyo committed suicide after putting in 65 to 70 hours every week for six months, plunging him into ill physical health and depression.
Authorities reporting to the labour ministry agreed to certify the suicide as a work accident and offered his widow three million yen (32,000 dollars) a year in compensation.
But even if the government is addressing the problem, few families of karoshi victims dare to go to former employers.
"The topic remains taboo in Japan with businesses thinking that their employees' mental state is their private problem," said Hajime Urushihara, the pointman on working conditions at Rengo, the union federation.
Nearly half of all businesses have no measures at all in place to prevent workplace stress, according to an investigation by the union.
Even though the law sets a 40-hour working week, one-quarter of Japanese workers toil for more than 50 hours a week and 10 percent put in more than 60 hours.
The vast majority of overworked employees are men, many in their 30s who are working their way up the corporate ladder.
Stress has long been a problem in Japan. Not even the imperial family is immune, with three members, including Emperor Akihito, all diagnosed in recent years with health problems tied to stress.
But karoshi has become a much more serious problem since the early 1990s when the collapse of the country's post-World War II economic miracle destroyed workers' promise of stable jobs for life.
Companies now routinely hire temporary workers, allowing bosses to lay them off when times get tough and putting more pressure on workers who remain on full-time contracts.
Tetsunojyo Uehata, who runs a centre to help overworked people, said the major issue was not just long hours but the accompanying problems -- abusive bosses, tension with colleagues and a sense of professional defeat amongst workers.
"Often the hierarchy just doesn't see the severity of the situation," Uehata said.
Urushihara, the trade unionist, said that after World War II, "the Japanese worked very hard but they also dreamed of a better life.
"That hope seems to have disappeared," he said.
Image of businessmen walking to their offices in the morning rush hour in Tokyo, by Toshifumi Kitamura.

Monday, January 12th 2009
Patrice Novotny

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