Could Work Kill You?

I am a frequent flier and thus read lots of airplane magazines. One of the better mags of the sky is American Way from American Airlines. The May issue is about all things Asia. There are several good articles but the one that really caught my eye dealt with a Japanese word I had never heard of.

The word was karoshi. Simply put, karoshi means death from overwork. Yes, death.

The story starts with a bang as it states, “One man worked as many as 110 hours per week, and he died from a heart attack at age 34. Another, a bus driver, clocked 3,000-plus hours annually before suffering a stroke at age 37 after working 15 days straight.”

Apparently, during Japan’s 2005 fiscal year there were 869 karoshi claims submitted with 330 of them being approved. These statistics were collected by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare department.

In their defense, Japan is working to improve this situation by strategically placing holidays on Mondays which create long weekends. And to be as balanced as possible I have known of one European executive (working in America at the time) falling over dead at his desk after working far too much. So I don’t think this is only a Japanese issue… though they do seem to be struggling mightily with it.

The article was careful to not state company names and I was curious to learn if Toyota has had any issues with karoshi. Upon some Google research it seems they have.

An article from the Japan Times Online stated, “Kenichi Uchino joined Toyota in 1989. He was a quality control engineer. During the last 30 days of his life — he died in February of a heart attack at age 30 — he reportedly worked 144 hours of overtime. The Nagoya District Court is currently considering whether his death is work-related.”

If you have some more insight into this serious topic please do share.

3 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    May 8, 2007 - 2:36 pm

    Are you saying Lean drives this sort of behavior? Not from my experience. There are work-aholics in any culture and any industry, right?

  2. Ron Pereira

    May 9, 2007 - 1:26 am

    No I am not saying that at all. I just came across this article and found it interesting and a bit shocking. I agree with you that I have not seen this aspect of Lean.

  3. Maciej

    May 9, 2007 - 12:11 pm

    This reminds me of something I read in “The Toyota Way”.

    Toyota engineers worked slavishly, canceling all vacations […] everyone understood they had to make personal sacrifices to work on this project that was so visibly important to the company and had such aggressive goals and timing targets. As an example, Takehisa Yaegashi was a senior manager who had supervised many engine development projects and was personally recruited by a board member to lead the hybrid engine team. When he agreed, he immediately went home, explained the situation to his wife, and moved into the company dormitory to get away from all distractions.

    I think if I moved into the company dormitory for a few months, I’d come home to an empty house!