According to newspaper reports, the problem of overwork in Taiwan is getting increasingly more serious, and the age pattern of those overworked is becoming “M-shaped,” with even workers under the age of 30 having died from overwork.
Ministry of Labor statistics show that workers complete an average of 2,124 hours per year, which is much higher than nations like the US, Germany, France, the UK and Japan. For example, average annual work hours for those in Taiwan are 736 hours higher than in Germany.
Death from overwork, or karoshi as it is called in Japanese, refers mainly to sudden death caused by an excessive workload. In such cases, the actual cause of death generally takes the form of acute circulatory illnesses, which fall into two main categories — cerebrovascular diseases and acute cardiac disease attacks. Examples include conditions that are generally defined as strokes or apoplexy, such as brain hemorrhages, thrombosis, embolism, infarction and subarachnoid hemorrhages, and heart diseases including sudden cardiac death, myocardial infarction, cardiac failure and aortic dissection.
According to the guide to identification criteria for work-related cerebrovascular and heart diseases (excluding those caused by external trauma), as amended on Dec. 17, 2010, the definition of “overwork” involves an overall assessment of long-term excessive work. For example, an employee working 92 overtime hours within one month, or an average of 72 hours per month for two to six months before falling ill; or short-term overwork, such as having worked extraordinarily long hours or being on duty, or working night shifts for a day or week before falling ill; as well as abnormal incidents, such as having encountered extreme stress, emergencies and so on.
The amendments broadened the definition of death through overwork, bringing the rules more in line with the basic idea and causes of karoshi, namely fatigue and pressure. For example, some senior department chiefs, while not necessarily working particularly long hours, might nonetheless face excessive stress that could lead to death through overwork.
Furthermore, death through overwork happens because of an ongoing process during which chronic fatigue is an intermediate stage. So, if you often experience cold-like symptoms, such as headaches, sore throat, slight fever, muscle pain, insomnia, still feeling tired after waking up or 50 percent or more reduction in activity levels — and if these symptoms persist for more than six months — you might be suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Although chronic fatigue does not necessarily lead to death through overwork, the risk of karoshi is much higher.
Death through overwork and chronic fatigue syndrome both result from factors that exist in modern society: prolonged stress and pressure; the never-ending pursuit of achievements and progress; and excessive workloads. Therefore, related government departments, as well as further broadening the identifying criteria for overwork, should also take preventive measures, including the encouragement of a “work smart, not hard” philosophy in schools and on-the-job learning, while providing more public information on the issue.
All workers should be aware of the limits of their objective environment, take more care of their health and not allow fatigue and pressure to accumulate. For example, people should set more time aside for going outdoors and walking around. At the very least, workers should make time for taking a walk or sitting quietly. Getting away from the office to get some exercise or chat with friends are both good ways to relieve the pressure of work.
Wang Yun-tung is a professor in the Department of Social Work at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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