Stated simply, KAROSHI means death from overwork. Overwork and excessive stress cause medical problems, such as cerebral and heart disease, mental disorders and eventually death.
Overwork is a characteristic of middle management, especially in industrialized countries where there is a shortage of skilled staff during an economic boom. Workers of all kinds are encouraged, directly or indirectly, to work extensive overtime. Overwork has become structural with the upper echelons of the professions and industry increasingly spending more time earning a living than at any time since the start of the industrial revolution.
After 18 hours of continuous work, reasoning and reaction timedrop to 40% of one's normal level. Vigilance also drops, which undermines the ability to read critically, handle figures and perform at meetings. Sleep loss further worsens performance. People do not learn to do without sleep, and sleep loss brings on symptoms like depression, anger or hostility.
Middle-aged workers working more than 48 hours/week have twice the risk of dying of heart disease, compared to someone working 40 hours maximum per week.
In Japan estimates of death from overwork are estimated at 10,000 per year, although the phenomenon had been denied by the government and corporations. In recent years, the Japanese Labour Ministry has awarded compensation to some 30 families whose breadwinners died of overwork, although all the deceased were labourers and not white-collar employees. The number of claims by white-collar workers is now half of the total of 700 per year.
Ninety-four percent of UK managers work longer than their official working week, and 35% have taken on one-third more workload during 1992. Three-quarters have difficulty finding time to relax or be with partners or children. Some causes of managerial stress were incompetent bosses, unrealistic business objectives, time pressures, inaccurate information, office politics and inadequately trained staff.
In the UK in 1994, following the death of a doctor apparently from overwork, it was reported that more than 1,000 of the country's 29,000 junior doctors regularly worked more than 84 hours a week, despite regulations which sought to reduce this to 72 per week by the end of 1994 and to 56 per week by the end of 1995.
In the USA it has been estimated that over the last 20 years of the 20th century, the average worker had increased the number of hours worked per year by 164. A random telephone survey of more than 630 men and women (USA, 2001) showed that one in six workers was unable to use up the annual vacation time, on average 13 days, due to job demands. The survey showed that 32% of people work and eat lunch at the same time, and the same percentage of people report that they never leave the building once they arrive at work. Other results from the survey reveal that 34% of people do not have down time at work due to pressing jobs; 19% say their job makes them feel older than they are; 17% say work causes them to lose sleep at night; and 12.8% of the men never took any vacation in the past five years.
Too much work breeds narrow-minded, monocultural workaholics. Family relationships are notably a victim of overwork. Workers have not time to develop the other facets of their personalities and consequently come to feel like automatons. In such a work culture the sense of individual identity tends to collapse. Work is too fragile a vehicle to bear the weight of our entire sense of meaning and purpose in life.