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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Japanese office stress at record levels
Tokyo rush hour
Japanese workers start the day on an appropriate note

Workplace stress is a problem all over the world.

But only the Japanese suffer it acutely enough to have a word - karoshi - that means "sudden death from overwork".

Now, Japan's health ministry has announced that there were 143 cases of karoshi last year, the highest level since it took notice of the problem in 1987.

The news comes as a surprise: as Japan's economy fell into recession over the past few years - sending unemployment spiralling higher - the need to overwork should have receded.

Macho culture

At the heart of karoshi is Japan's extraordinary long-hours working culture.

Tokyo's Shinjuku district
Japanese workers are judged far more on merit
In 1990, the average Japanese worker put in 2,124 hours a year - fully 500 hours more than the Germans or French.

Last year, according to the health ministry, that figure had fallen to a more manageable 1,843 hours, still well above the global average, but low by Japanese standards.

At the same time, however, the level of workplace anxiety has been heightened by the economic slump, which has forced many firms to cut jobs for the first time since World War II.

Even companies that have not sacked workers have tended to shift from hierarchies based purely on seniority to more meritocratic, performance-based systems.

And Japanese offices, still largely male-dominated, are notorious for their punishing culture, where hard work is matched by heavy drinking and smoking in the evenings.

Coming to terms

Last year's figures disguise a statistical discrepancy: according to new procedures, the ministry now applies a far broader definition of karoshi, examining the deceased's working conditions in the six months before death.

A flower garden
The government wants everyone to take time out
The more liberal application is indicative of growing official concern over the phenomenon, long laughed off by macho Japanese bosses.

The ministry is also keen to uncover hidden karoshi - those employees who play down their stress in order not to appear weak in front of colleagues.

The official aim is to reduce the average working year to 1,800 hours by 2005 - something that the slowing economy is helping to achieve.

It has a strong incentive to help reduce stress: over the past few months, a number of high-profile legal cases have been brought against supposedly insensitive employers, including some in the public sector.


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22 May 02 | Business
05 Mar 02 | Business
20 Aug 01 | Health
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