Health

Karoshi in Japan: Overworked and Stressed at Work

Japan’s work culture is considered so stressful and hazardous to worker health that there is even a term to describe death from overworking – karoshi. But now new technologies that measure worker stress levels may offer vital hope for change.

Japan’s culture of overworking is worsening with legal claims for compensation for karoshi increasing to an unprecedented high of 1456 last year, according to the recent government figures.

The average Japanese worker spends approximately 53 hours per week working but a significant percentage – about 15-20 per cent of the workforce, works more than 60 hours a week – the legal amount required for karoshi compensation claims to be made. However, the number of claims for compensation is thought to be one tenth of the actual number of deaths.

The Plight of Japanese Workers

Scott North, associate professor of sociology at Osaka University, says there are multiple reasons for Japan’s unrelenting work culture, including labour market issues and a changing workplace that would make a quick fix unlikely.

“The shrinking number of regular jobs puts pressure on workers to put up with whatever demands firms make,” says North. “In addition, work intensity has risen due to office automation, information technology and globalisation.”

Cultural views about work are also partly to blame. “Harassment is common. Japanese culture puts heavy emphasis on cooperation and worker identities are rooted in employment, so workers don’t stand up for themselves. Moreover, the labour market is unkind to those who quit,” says North.

Technology To The Rescue

Some companies are now offering technological tools that may help employers monitor worker stress levels, so they can make appropriate choices about employer wellbeing before it’s too late.

J!NS MEME glasses from J!NS, a Tokyo-based eyewear company, are smart glasses with three-point electrooculography sensors. They can interpret how fatigued or stressed you are by tracking the directional movement of your eyes, changes in line of sight and blinking.

JINS MEME glasses can monitor your eye movements
J!NS MEME glasses can monitor your eye movements

It’s hoped that workplaces and individuals will adopt this technology especially for workers who work long hours, stare at screens or drive for long periods of time. However, not everybody wears glasses and implementing such a system into the workplace on a large scale for all employees seems unlikely.

Alps Electric, a computer components company, showcased a prototype computer mouse that includes its Alps Genial Light Vital Sensor (AGV) technology at the Tokyo MedTec convention in April this year. The AGV sensor measures pulse, haemoglobin and blood oxygen saturation from an employee’s contact with the mouse.

“The sensor is very small and lightweight, and it can be incorporated anywhere from a wristband to mouse and helmet,” says Robert Nestor, Alps Electric spokesperson. “It can take simultaneous data all the time so it’s non-invasive. With this data, employers can make an objective and educated decision about their employees’ health.”

Alps Electric hopes that the technology will be applied to nursing, sports and in office and outdoor workplaces when development is complete next year.

Another option is a voice analysis. Developed by Israeli company Nemesysco, it’s Layered Voice Analysis (LVA) technology takes proprietary measurements of the human voice and then identifies stress levels, cognitive processes and emotional reactions in the subject.

Nemesysco's LVA technology identifies stress levels, cognitive processes and emotions by measuring the human voice
Nemesysco’s LVA technology identifies stress levels, cognitive processes and emotions by measuring the human voice

It’s currently used for call centre screening and security clearances, but it could “help save lives in Japan as soon as tomorrow” if it is implemented for workers, according to Amir Liberman, the founder of Nemesysco.

Government Move Needed to End Karoshi Culture

About 15 to 20 percent of the Japanese workforce works more than 60 hours a week – the legal amount required for karoshi compensation claims to be made.
About 15 to 20 percent of the Japanese workforce works more than 60 hours a week – the legal amount required for karoshi compensation claims to be made.

While these tracking and monitoring technologies seem to be a good solution, they raise questions about worker privacy. There has already been litigation against corporations that force their employers to carry mobile phones that track their locations both at work and outside of work.

There are also concerns that such technologies might be used by employers to further discipline workers, says North. “Work hours are the most objective criteria by which Japanese bosses evaluate workers. Being able to further monitor workers using technology might increase the intensity of work or encourage workers to work off the clock, which is already commonplace.”

Kanae, a 29-year-old sales representative from Osaka, works approximately 60 hours per week. She says new technologies will do little to change workload and Japanese workers’ desire to work overtime. “Even if we can measure stress, our quantity of work won’t change. Japanese workers want more money. If our working hours become regulated, we won’t be able to earn enough money and we’d have to get a second job.”

Although the Japanese labour law limits work to eight hours a day, there is a clause in Japan’s Labour Standards Law that allows employers to order additional work when they judge “it’s necessary for the smooth operation of the enterprise”, says North.

To make a real change to Japan’s karoshi culture, more stringent enforcement of Japanese laws is required as a step towards better regulating worker hours, he recommends.

Earlier this year, the Japanese government was reportedly considering reducing the upper limits of overtime – up to 45 hours a month – allowed for workers. The new laws, following a proposal last year, will also force workers to go on holiday, as the Japanese workforce took less than half of its official holiday entitlement in 2013.

After all, the additional time spent in the office doesn’t necessarily mean increased productivity. Hopefully, the advanced technologies and better law enforcement will facilitate change in the Japanese labour market, and end the karoshi culture in the near future.

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