Health Outcomes of Overwork

Karoshi (カロシ) is a Japanese term literally meaning “overwork death” which is occupational sudden mortality. Japanese people over the last few decades have been working longer hours compared to what they did in the late 20th century. This overwork increased their incomes but is not untouched by the adverse health effects especially mental health. The overtime usually is unpaid work people do because of the fear of losing their jobs.


The first case of Karoshi was reported in 1969 with a male suffering from a stroke at 29 years of age. He was a worker in the shipping department at Japan’s largest newspaper company that time. Karoshi term was coined in 1978 to assign the increasing number of deaths related to heart attacks and strokes in young people.

In 1987 due to increasing deaths in young, healthy individuals due to strokes and heart attacks, Japan’s labour ministry started compiling and publishing Karoshi statistics. People who commit suicide due to mental stress are called karojisatsu(過労自殺).

Causes of Overwork

1) When the bubble economy collapsed a lot of companies had to layoff their workforce, but the work never decreased. Hence all the work now were to be done by the remaining employees which increased per capita workload.

2) Stress of not performing as well as the company’s expectations led to increased psychological hardship.

3) The middle management in the companies have the power to fire employees which created a fearful situation. The abuse of this power by the middle management also contributed to employees working overtime.

4) Bosses expectations of young employees still working their way up the corporate ladder to arrive early and leave late, often well into the night.

Effects on Physical health

1) Impaired Sleep

The stress related to overworking negatively impacts our sleep. This causes a sleep debt which has a negative impact on hippocampus, a brain area responsible for memory.

2) Heart

A research study conducted by a university found that white-collar workers who worked three or more hours longer than a normal, seven-hour day had a 60% higher risk of being prone to heart-related problems, as opposed to white-collar workers who didn’t work overtime. The main cause of heart problems is due to low blood supply to the heart.

3) Type 2 Diabetes

A group of researchers found links between stress caused due to overworking and type 2 Diabetes. This is especially true for lower socioeconomic strata who are the most vulnerable.

4) Hypertension

Working more than 61 h per week showed an increased risk of suffering from elevated systolic blood pressure.

5) Burnout

Prolonged stress can lead an individual on the road to a burnout, which is a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.

6) Occupational injury

A study found that working 12 or more hours per day and 60 or more hours per week increased the risk of occupational injury. Grosch et al. reported an increase in occupational injuries when working more than 70 h per week compared to those working 41 to 69 h per week.

Mental effects

1) Depression

A study published in PLoS ONE in January 2012 showed that people who regularly work more than 11-hour days more than double their chances of major depression as compared to employees who typically work about eight hours a day. Further, it has been reported that female workers have a higher risk of experiencing depression than male workers when working the same number of hours.

2) Cognitive impairment

A study published in Neurobiology of Aging suggested that workers who complete varying shifts rather than a fixed workday needed more time to complete a test that is frequently used by doctors to screen of cognitive impairment.

3) Substance abuse

It has been found that people find relaxation from long working hours by consumption of alcohol and smoking. The frequency of alcohol was increased in people working more than 60 hours per week compared to people working less than that.

4) Physical inactivity

Due to long hours people don’t get enough time and sleep to do some form of excercise.

5) Sleep

People getting less than 4 hours of sleep are at risk of heart attacks and strokes. Less sleep is also a risk factor for development of various mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

Of course, working long hours is not the only reason people become depressed, but the study raises awareness that it can play a role, says Randy Auerbach, PhD, who researches depression at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. The reality is that employees are often driven to work more to hold on to the job and income they have. If it doesn’t seem feasible to cut back on your hours, Auerbach says, then ask yourself, “What can I do to put my mental and physical well-being first?” It’s important to have periods with less pressure at work and shorter hours,” Virtanen says. Her other tips for work-life balance include making a distinction between work and leisure, not skipping your vacation time, and taking care of your health, especially sleep and excercise.

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