Working Wounded: Working Yourself to Death

Dear Readers: It's time to look back on the year to identify the Working Wounded person of the year. We search worldwide for nominees, and some years it can be a very tough call. But not this year.

Meet our person of the year, Kenichi Uchino.

Unfortunately, Uchino can't accept the award because he died five years ago. But the result of his death changed the dialogue about work throughout Japan and in many other countries.

If you've ever seen a World War II movie, chances are that you've heard of hari-kari and kamikaze. You've probably not heard of "karoshi," which is the Japanese term for death from overwork.

We're not quoting Uchino's personal physician or union. No, this case of karoshi was acknowledged by a court in central Japan. It awarded his widow worker's compensation benefits. Furthermore, the Japanese government admits 147 cases of death from overwork last year, with some experts placing the number in the thousands.

The Japanese workers are some of the hardest working in the world, totaling 1,842 hours a year. That's the equivalent of sitting through 3,684 episodes of "Barney" or 921 corporate safety lectures.

Uchino routinely put in 80 hours of overtime per month for at least six months before his death. He was a middle manager in charge of quality control when he collapsed and died at work at age 30. My heart goes out to his young family for their loss.

But the Japanese are slackers compared to another industrialized nation -- it's us, as in the USA. If you thought the Japanese worked longer hours, you are so last decade. In the mid-1990s we passed them to become the hardest-working country on the planet.

We worked 1,979 hours. That is three and a half more weeks than the Japanese. We're talking almost a month more of work each year. Almost a year more at work each decade.

The sheer number of hours worked doesn't capture the problem. Stress, heart attacks, strokes and infertility. Yes, infertility. The problem has gotten so bad in Japan that the government is considering decreasing working hours for public servants in order to coax workers into having more babies. Overwork costs all of us.

In the United States we have terms for working long hours -- burned out, slammed and overwhelmed. We also have federal and state departments of labor, human resources departments and lawyers for workplace injuries. Thousands and thousands of employment lawyers are ready to lunge on those claims like a hungry dog on a piece of raw meat.

But we haven't reached the place where U.S. courts have declared karoshi. Yet.

But the clues were always right under our noses. Have you ever thought about how much of the language about work revolves around death -- deadline, dying to get a job, killing time, drop-dead date, etc. The time is right for a revolt against ridiculous overwork. It's hoped that Uchino's death will bring to life a movement toward more reasonable hours at work.

Thought for the Week

"A wise man knows everything, a shrewd one everybody." -- Anonymous

List of the Week

Ouch points at work … What annoys people the most at work

  • Poor communication by senior management about the business, 17 percent

  • General office politics, 16 percent

  • Lack of teamwork, 15 percent

  • Having to use politically correct language, 9 percent

  • Nosy co-workers, 6 percent

Source: Opinion Research Corporation

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, speaker and internationally syndicated columnist. He'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you have better ideas than he does. His books include "The Boss's Survival Guide" and "Gray Matters: The Workplace Survival Guide." Send your questions or comments to him via: bob@workingwounded.com.

ABCNEWS.com publishes a new Working Wounded column every Friday. This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Comments