Methods of Improving Worker Health and Safety in Japan


For a country’s economy to be successful its workforce must be healthy. A healthy nation is a prosperous nation. This should be both in terms of human and environmental health. Japan, our main concern for the discussion, has one of the most vibrant economies and this is as a result of hard work and commitment from its workforce. However, overwork in any country does not come without human cost. Physical and mental health is amongst the most common setbacks affecting human health in the working environment (Boye, 2002, par.1). The result of failure in the proper functioning of the body results in death due to overwork, a situation that is commonly referred to as Karoshi in Japan. Karoshi therefore may be regarded as a fatal condition in which the normal rhythm of a living being collapses due to fatigue, hence ruining life maintenance function resulting in death (Kanai, 2008, p. 209). The first case of death from overwork- Karoshi- was reported in 1929. The death was due to an over-work-induced stroke (Nashiyama & Jeffrey, 1997, par.1). It is estimated that at the very least, 10,000 people die from Karoshi every year in Japan (Hartmann, 2008, par.7). The physical and mental health complications that lead to Karoshi may result from the pressure that the employer may use to harass the employees in order to attain the set targets or from addiction to work, for some people. The paper will look into the causes and possible ways in which Karoshi can be reduced to improve the worker health and safety for a healthy nation and to have effective production.

Scope and Aim

The scope of the study is limited to Japan concerning the deaths relating to overworking, Karoshi. This is because Japan is the most affected country by this phenomenon, Karoshi since it has the highest percentage of deaths related to overwork in the world. The study aims to establish the main factors that lead to Karoshi, how this phenomenon can be mitigated, and the environmental impact(s) of Karoshi. The paper also looks into ways of improving work health and safety.

Causes of Karoshi and its environmental impact(s)

The main causes of Karoshi in Japan are heart attacks and stress. This is as a result of long working hours. In 2004, the International Labor Organization (ILO) reported that 28.1 percent of Japanese employees worked 50 hours or more in a week. This was much higher in comparison with other countries in the world (Hiyama and Yushihara, 2008, par.1). This lifestyle of overworking causes physical health problems. Problems such as ischemic heart disease and cerebral hemorrhage lead to Karoshi (Hiyama and Yushihara, 2008, par.2). Karoshi could also come about due to an over-demanding employer who provides poor social support to his/her employees (Hiyama et al, 2008). Failure to reach the set target may result in overwork. As a result of high and unreasonable targets, there is a lot of pressure and this may lead to a good number of people quitting their jobs. The remaining employees are subjected to even higher pressure and this can result in Karoshi or work suicide.

Karoshi could also be regarded as a social-cultural alternative. Many Japanese believe that joy and peace are derived from hard work (Palumbo & Paul, 1994, p.11). This is a mentality that comes from the belief that without toiling the meaningfulness of living is in vain (Palumbo and Paul, 1994, p.11). The effects of overworking are manifested in various human and environmental forms. In this case, however, emphasis shall be on the environmental effects. Overworking means that the industries are always running. As a result, industries continue to emit high amounts of toxic wastes. The thought of a sickly population directly affects environmental health as the sick population cannot be able to manage appropriately manage the environment.

Methods of improving worker health and safety

A healthy workforce is vital for efficiency in the productivity of organizations. Both the government and other Japanese corporations have devised several measures aimed at improving worker health and safety. Toshiba Corporation has been involved in maintaining its workforce’s health by conducting medical checkups for its employees. It has also introduced a number of health systems for the maintenance of its workers’ health. Systems such as periodic medical checkups, health-related risk management, medical checks after excessive overtime, and oversee medical patrols are some of the physical health maintenance systems that have been developed (Social and Env. activities, 2010, par.13). On mental health care, the corporation has devised systems such as self-care mental health support, employee education (Social and Env. activities, 2010, par.12) and as a result, there has been increased productivity and decline in cases of Karoshi. This policy was formed in 2004 by Toshiba and it has been in operation to date. On issues of environmental management, Toshiba Corporation has also devised some measures. They are under crises management. This concentrates on countermeasures for new types of influenza and, raising awareness and education on infectious diseases among its working force (Social and Env. activities, 2010, par.16).

Other corporations like Sony require all their employees to take a vacation for a week or two every year as a compulsory measure to curb probable cases of Karoshi (Palumbo & Paul, 1994, p.11). This way, the corporation maintains a healthy and motivated workforce and as a result the output is high. Also, medical checkups are encouraged by Sony Corporation (Palumbo & Paul, p.11). Such vacations are also a form of incentive that will give the workers morale as they will resume working refreshed and more composed. The result of this is that the productivity of an organization increases. The government can only lay down harsh regulations to try and curb the rising cases of Karoshi since it has to bear the burden of compensating the dependants of the Karoshi victims. This would be implemented by the labor department so that the employers would stop pressuring their employees by setting very high and unreasonable demands. This way, the government would be safeguarding the rights and the welfare of its citizens.

With regard to the cases of addiction, the government and corporations should provide professionals to offer individual and/ or group therapy(s). Seminars would also go a long way in helping to educate addicts of work to develop new strategies and adjust their lifestyles to other better lifestyles. In many cases, this has been successful in many nations (Work Addiction, 2005, par.7). Japan should also consider this as a good remedy for this problem.

Conclusion and recommendation

Karoshi refers to death from overworking. It is a phenomenon that is present in many countries today. In Japan, however, cases of Karoshi are very high and as a result, there are so many health complications. The major causes of Karoshi are heart attacks and stress, resulting from fatigue in the workforce and failure in the normal functioning of the body system. Other consequences of overworking are mental and physical complications. In this case, the mental complications are depression and stress which eventually lead to death. Apart from government regulations that are aimed at curbing Karoshi, the corporations in Japan have taken a step to check the health of their employees and educate them on the various issues relating to their health and safety. Corporations like Toshiba and Sony have set a good example to other corporations on how to minimize Karoshi and maintain the good health and safety of workers.

As a recommendation, there should be strict regulations on the standard working hours in Japan and these should be strictly observed by both the workers and the employers. Recommended penalties for the same in case of any violation should also be devised and enforced by the law. This will go a long way into maintaining the good health of Japan’s workforce, in effect increasing productivity. The Japanese government should also use professionals to offer therapy to the addicts and hold seminars to help them change from the lifestyle of work addiction to better and happier lifestyles. The government should encourage the families of possible victims-to-be of Karoshi to give them social support so that they can have a sense of appreciation and divert their attention to other constructive and productive activities away from work to reduce the risk of Karoshi. Finally, the younger generation should be brought up in a notion that overworking does not necessarily mean success and society also should learn to break from mediocre beliefs such as the one of believing that without overworking there is no sense in life.

Reference List

Boye, L. M. (2002). Karoshi: Death From Over Work. Web.

Hiyama, T., & Yushihara, M. (2008). New Occupational Threats to Japanese Physicians: Karoshi (Death due to overwork) and Karojisai (Suicide Work). Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 65(6), 428-429. Doi: 10:1136/oem.2007.037473. Web.

Hartmann, I. W. (2008). Karoshi – Death from Overwork. Web.

Kanai, A. (2008). Karoshi (Work to Death) in Japan. Journal of Business Ethics, 84, 209-216. Doi: 10.1007/s10551-008-9701-8. Web.

Nashiyama, k., & Jeffrey, N. J. (1994). Karoshi – Death from Overwork: Occupational Health Consequences of the Japanese Production Management.International of Health Services, 6. Web.

Palumbo, F. A., & Paul, A. H. (1994). Karoshi: Salaryman Sudden Death Syndrome. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 9(7), 11-16. Web. (2010). Social and Environmental Activities. Web.