No Word for Karōshi

The Japanese are renowned for their industriousness. There were various factors that enabled the extraordinary achievement of raising from the ruins of World War II an economic powerhouse that in a few short years could even compete with its Western conquerors.

The Japanese recovery provides a mighty example of how destructive force can be rechanneled into constructive endeavor. The fanatical energy that served imperial ambition was poured into a peaceful state. Instead of beating down their enemies, they created a world-beating economy.

But now, it seems, the kamikaze spirit persisted after World War Two; only instead of going to their death in mass suicide attacks, the corporate kamikaze chains himself to his office desk, inviting death through overwork. Like Kenji Hamada, a typical victim, who was found slumped over his desk at the age of 42, dead from a heart attack apparently brought on by punishing 15-hour days and four-hour commutes.

If the comparison seems unendearing or unfair, well, the Japanese themselves acknowledge that something has gone very wrong with their work ethic.

The Japanese word for it is karōshi, which translates as “death by overwork.” In 2015, a record 2,310 cases of karōshi were reported, way up from the hundreds of cases documented in the 1980s. The actual figure may be four times higher. The National Defense Council for Victims of Karōshi claim that it nears 10,000 — approximately the number of people killed each year in traffic accidents.

The problem has attained official recognition as well. In substantiated cases, the government offers compensation of about $20,000 to families of victims and company payouts go up to $1.6 million.

However gruesome the karōshi stories may be, researchers are dubious that overwork is the killer it is reputed to be. They say there is really no hard evidence that the common components of overwork — stress and lack of sleep — can cause premature death on their own.

You need help from such heavy hitters as smoking, drinking and bad eating habits. Oxford University’s so-called Million Women Study tracked the health of around 700,000 women for nearly a decade. They found that those who complained of stressful lives were indeed more likely to die earlier than others. But those people were also suffering from serious medical conditions. In fact, the researchers concluded, they were stressed because they were sick.

Still, it does makes sense that stress and strain from overwork at least contribute to shortening life; that they help one into an early grave, even if they don’t drive the person there by themselves.

Of course, this discussion is of more than strictly anthropological interest. The Japanese may be the only ones who suffer from karōshi, but they certainly aren’t the only ones who suffer from overwork. They just stand out because they gave it a name and a legal status.

As Cary Cooper, a stress expert at Lancaster University, pointed out, the plague of overwork is widespread in other countries too. “Haven’t we had cases in the city of London? There’s just no word for it,” says Cooper.

In August 2013, Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt, 21, was found& dead& at home after working for 72 hours straight. The immediate cause was epilepsy, but the forensic opinion submitted to the court stated it could have been triggered by his work marathon. Following his death, the bank restricted the intern workday to 17 hours.

The Japanese were the world’s leading workaholics in the post-war era, but things have changed. Not surprisingly, karōshi-like behavior has been on the rise elsewhere too, as others join the global rat race. In China, for instance, an estimated 600,000 people fall victim every year, only they have their own word for it — guolaosi.

Statistics from 2015 show that the average Japanese worker puts in fewer hours than his U.S. counterpart. The worry of losing one’s job in a downsizing has kept many Americans at their workplaces longer than they would otherwise be, in order to demonstrate their productive energy and value to their employers. And the advent of such technologies as email have led to increased work hours as people remain connected to the office on the road and at home, at nights and on weekends.

The health consequences of a 24/7 work style may not be able to be pinned down scientifically, but they can’t be good either.

But even if the next Oxford study would somehow prove beyond clinical doubt that overwork actually increases longevity and adds luster to your hair, we would still be against it.

For a person cannot be measured as a mere unit of productivity. Even the company that employs him should be in favor of a reasonable amount of time away from work to spend with family, to exercise and relax. Otherwise, their dedicated employee may soon be a deceased employee, or a very sick one, of no use to them.

Baruch Hashem, 24/7 can never be more than a catchphrase for the mekadshei shevi’i, the am medushnei oneg, who in any case refrain from melachah on the Shabbos. And even 24/6 has its spiritual boundaries. Time has to be made for Torah and tefillah. Without them, all our material efforts are for nought.

And that is why there is no word in Lashon Hakodesh for karōshi. Death from overwork is not part of our vocabulary. Chayei olam nata bisocheinu.