[Updated on 1 June 2018]
Photo credit (above): Alex | Flickr
Earning a living?
By KAREN NEOH
How often have we heard our friends and colleagues exclaim “I am so stressed” or muttered it to ourselves? It’s not easily quantifiable, nor is it experienced in the same way.
The ones who remain mum on the subject may be suppressing overwhelming levels of pressure and anxiety that can explode spectacularly.
In the award-winning play by Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, set in the late 1940s, Linda speaks of her husband Willy Loman, “He works for a company 36 years this March, opens up unheard-of territories to their trademark, and now in his old age they take his salary away.”
When the unthinkable happens and Loman is let go from his job, he reflects,
“Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
Life imitates art
Closer to home and decades later, work-related stress and overwork suicide is a very real issue.
In an analysis of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Chang et al found that although economic impacts were the most severe in Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia, Japan showed the sharpest rise in suicide rate.
The British Medical Journal cites potential reasons for this. With the disruption of “traditional” employment systems (with guaranteed lifetime employment), the share of precarious employment increased from 20% in 1995 to 34% in 2007.
Even for fully employed workers – workloads became strikingly high. In 2000, 28% of regular Japanese employees worked 50+ hours per week, compared to 16%–21% in New Zealand, the United States, Australia and the UK.
Statistics from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicate that there has been an increasing trend in cases of karoshi and karojisatsu in Japan.
Karoshi is a sociomedical term that refers to “fatalities or associated work disability due to cardiovascular attacks (such as brain strokes, myocardial infarction or acute cardiac failure) aggravated by a heavy workload and long working hours” (ILO).
Karojisatsu (suicide from overwork and stressful working conditions) has also been a social issue in Japan since the late 1980s.
In 2012, the Japanese government compensated 813 families who were able to show a link between overwork, illness and death, including 93 suicides.
More recently, The Japan Times reported that Japan’s parliament passed a law in June 2014 calling for support centres, assistance to businesses for prevention programmes, and more research on karoshi.
Spread of a non-communicable condition
Cesar Chelala, MD and PhD, and public health consultant says that incidents similar to karoshi have been reported in China, South Korea and Bangladesh. In China, an estimated 600,000 people died from overwork in 2010.
This might interest you: Infographic: Organisational Stress And Its Impact
Who is at risk?
A growing body of evidence indicates that workers in high-demand situations who have little control of their work and low social support are at increased risk of developing and dying of cardiovascular disease.
The consequences of overwork and stress are not limited to men.
In the Women’s Health Study (WHS) – a landmark study involving 17,000 female health professionals – Harvard researchers found that women whose work is highly stressful have a 40% increased risk of heart disease compared with colleagues under less stress. These results were confirmed in Denmark and China.
Causes of occupational stress
The ILO cites potential causes of overwork or occupational stress:
- All-night, late-night or holiday work – long and excessive hours.
- Stress accumulated due to frustration of inability to achieve organisational goals set by the company.
- Forced resignation, dismissal and bullying. For example, employees who have been loyal to a company for many years, are suddenly asked to resign due to staff cutbacks.
- Suffering of middle management who are often in a dilemma between the corporate restructuring policy and protecting their staff from being laid off.
Deaths by overwork affect not only families who may lose their main breadwinner, but also industries that are hit with lawsuits and suffer lost productivity. At the aggregate level, the national economy can be affected.
This might interest you: Health & Safety: People Are Precious!
What to do
- Regular exercise reduces anxiety and depression and improves sleep.
- Practise relaxation techniques.
- When feeling overwhelmed by stress, seek help from a mental health professional
With the recognition that placing excessive demands on employees is counterproductive, companies should provide the best work conditions. The ILO suggests to:
- Reduce working hours and excessive work.
- Provide adequate medical support and treatment, including access to appropriate medical facilities and counselling mechanisms.
- Promote active and effective dialogue between employees and employers to design healthy and efficient work procedures and workplaces.
At the macro level, legislation should be passed to increase job security and skill training as well as employee participation in considering issues that directly affect them.
Workers who have better control of their jobs will increase in productivity and suffer less from the stressful component of their jobs.
Bringing it all together
Stress, like depression, is a word that has entered our everyday lexicon and in this short article, I hope to convey that there is a severity to the condition that should not, and cannot be dismissed.
In the same breath, I hope that education and access to accurate information can remove the stigma that prevents people from seeking help and support they need.