Post-Brexit wellbeing: Could we be heading for ‘karoshi'?

It’s worth understanding Japanese phenomenon karoshi, and how and why death from overwork has been happening

Death from overworking is a familiar enough phenomenon in Japan to have its own name: ‘karoshi’.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest karoshi is heading here, as there are obvious cultural differences. Employees in the West are more individual in their attitudes, and, it could be argued, less likely to be self-sacrificing to the same degree. But the pressure from international competitors' models of working and impressive levels of productivity is only going to intensify after Brexit.

So it’s worth understanding the particular nature of karoshi, and how and why it's been happening. Figures suggest that a fifth of employees in Japan are at risk of karoshi – usually a sudden heart attack or stroke – and in 2015 claims for compensation rose to their highest-ever level of 1,456 in a single year.

It’s not just Japan, as South Korea has a similar problem (which they call ‘gwarosa’), and it’s reported to be affecting China, India and Taiwan too. The West has its own related health issues in its high levels of death from heart disease. Research backs up the suspected physical link between stress and heart conditions.

The causes of karoshi are more complex than they might seem, and more subtle than the term ‘overwork’ suggests. For example, it’s not the case that the Japanese work the longest hours in the world anymore (that’s Americans and Mexicans), the issue is more about the nature of the work. Research published in The Lancet last year argued that karoshi isn’t the result, necessarily, of just long hours, high levels of stress or anxiety from work pressures – it’s suspected to be more an issue of confinement; so much time being spent sitting down locked into an office cubicle. It backs up the claim that 'sitting is the new smoking'.

All the issues are interrelated. If there wasn’t the state of psychological angst people would find it easier to spend time away from their desks, finish up earlier, have a better diet and get more sleep. But the research re-affirms the need for health and wellbeing activities to be embedded as part of a culture of daily activity, not as an out of hours leisure option through benefits, just for out-of-hours. There’s a need for a range of offerings that fit alongside work schedules and for different types of people. That can break up those long hours of sitting and become a practical part of people’s daily habits and routines.

For example:

  • Introducing standing desks, standing meetings, or even walking meetings
  • ‘Deskercise’ – the use of simple tips to exercise and stretch while employees are at their desks
  • Providing access to step counters (through smartphone apps or wearables) and offer guideline targets or challenges to add a sense of competition and community spirit
  • Lunchtime walking or running clubs are also popular
  • Explicit policies on break times and provision of specific spaces to encourage breaks (backed up by working with line managers to raise awareness of the issues and involve them in supporting and encouraging their teams to take regular breaks)
  • Skipping meals and not eating properly are also a factor in karoshi, so the demise of the canteen doesn’t help. Providing healthy eating options in the workplace, especially snacks, is one solution. If there is on-site catering it’s important to work with the caterers on a menu that has good nutritional content, and provide advice to employees on how they can eat better in the workplace: healthy food swaps, healthy recipes, and eating well on a budget.

There’s no doubt British employers will need to respond to high-performance operations overseas. But they must do it with their eyes open to the pitfalls, and make sure changes are entwined with a proactive health and wellbeing agenda. The Japanese government sent a clear message on its position to employers last year: overworking people doesn’t improve productivity. However, maybe that isn’t enough.

A more useful approach would have been to make clear that there’s a healthy version of hard work and a very unhealthy one.

Kirsten Samuel is CEO of Kamwell