Japanese is an interesting language comprised of four different alphabets, hiragana (also referred to as kana), katakana (an alphabet for foreign words), kanji (characters borrowed from Chinese), and romaji (Japanese words written using the Latin alphabet). But in recent times, just like the Japanese have borrowed words from other languages, so have other languages begun to adopt Japanese words into their vernacular. Manga, sushi, sake, and matcha are words that are now recognized in many homes around the word. In the last few years, we’ve seen an acceleration of this proliferation with words like omotenashi (Japanese hospitality), emoji (the emotional characters on your smart phones), and karoshi, which means “death by overwork”.

In the fall of 2016, the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare released a white paper on karoshi that found nearly a quarter of the 1,743 companies surveyed had workers putting in more than 80 hours of overtime per month. The government has acknowledged that 96 deaths caused by strokes and heart attacks were karoshi related, but experts think that the criteria for a death to be attributed to karoshi is too strict and the numbers are much higher.

This isn’t something new to Japan’s HR leaders. The working culture is a rigorous one. Employees work long hours and, in some cases, are expected to remain in the office until their superiors leave. This makes creating a work-life balance a hard thing to achieve.

An example of just how overwork can have deadly consequences can be seen with Matsuri Takahashi, a Dentsu employee who committed suicide back in December 2015, yet her death continues to be in the headlines. The Japanese weekly, Shukan Bunshun, stated that she was known to be bright, vivacious and won praise and prize during her induction period at Dentsu. She graduated from Tokyo University and joined Dentsu thinking it was her dream job. In October 2015 she finished her training and became a regular employee. At the time, Dentsu was involved with an accounting scandal and cut staff in her department from 14 to eight. To make matters worse, there’s also allegation that she suffered from harsh power harassment from her bosses. She tweeted that it’s horrible being a freshman employee and that it was no fun and that she had no time for anything but work even on Saturdays.

Handling these kinds of situations–being aware when they occur and then stepping in as needed to help mitigate the risk of karoshi–can be quite the challenge because it is common practice that companies to tell employees to under report overtime so they can stay within the government mandated overtime limit.

Changing this kind of systemic culture will take time and has to start from the top. At a country level, the government has put together a task force designed to improve the nation’s work-life balance. They sponsor a campaign called Premium Friday, which encourages organizations to shorten the workdays by one Friday every month. Amazingly, some companies are moving beyond that and are forcing employees to head home at specific times or allowing them to work remotely for a certain number of days a month or a week.

HR’s Role

HR’s involvement in Matsuri Takahashi’s case was not clear, but a part of their responsibility is the health and welfare of their employees. Today’s organisations need HR leaders who can use employee analytics to have the debate of cost savings versus employee welfare; who have the talent management experience to handle seasonal as well as temporary workers; and above all, who have the courage to push back when reducing staff from 14 to eight. To effectively implement the kind of change that will decrease the number of karoshi-related deaths requires a partnership between HR leaders and line managers, working together to identify employees who are overworked and then giving them the time to re-balance. Also, they need to create the environment where employees feel they can leave work at a reasonable hour or raise their hand when they need help with meeting goals in a timely manner. Whether HR presents a proposal to senior leadership to implement programs like like Premium Fridays or another one they develop, the time for action is now.

Karoshi is a serious issue that can’t be mitigated by individual employees, HR teams or even the government alone. It will be a team effort of HR teams and business leaders coming together to put the welfare of employees first. And maybe then, karoshi will lose its place in the global lexicon.

The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare whitepaper in Japanese can be found here: