Karoshi--recently certified suicides from overwork

Karoshi--recently certified suicides from overwork

by TAMAKI Kazunari
National Defense Council for Victims of Karoshi

Karoshi (death from cerebro-vascular or cardio-vascular diseases due to overwork) has been well known as a symbol of the antidemocratic corporate practices which force employees to do unpaid overtime. Since the late 1990's, several suicides by people who apparently were depressed because of overwork have been reported. Among them some were officially certified by a court after their cases were rejected by the Labor Standards Inspection Office (LSIO), which is responsible for administrating the official labor accident insurance. Other cases led to a favorable court ruling in damage suits against employers.

The Labor ministry has taken important actions since late 1997 in this context:

1997: September
The Occupational Disease Victim Certification Division of the Labor Ministry stated its plan to set up an ad hoc expert group to consider certification of occupational mental disorders and suicides.

1997: October
A lawyers network for karoshi victims submitted a recommendation to the Labor Minister to improve the procedures to officially certify karoshi victims, including suicide and mental disorders.

1997: December
Tokyo Central LSIO certified a construction company employee who had committed suicide to be eligible for labor accident insurance compensation.
Hiroshima Central LSIO certified the suicide of a food company employee to be occupational.

1998 February
The Labor Ministry set up a working group for the certification of sufferers of occupational mental disorders.
Okayama District Court ruled on a damage suit on behalf of a steel company worker who committed a suicide, saying that the company should be liable for his suicide on the breath of safety obligations.
Chiba Municipal Workers Accident Compensation Fund decided a municipal worker who had killed himself be covered by the fund for compensation.

1998: March
Shizuoka and Oita Municipal Workers Accident Compensation Funds decided that the suicides of municipal workers were occupational.

Officially certified occupational suicide

A construction company engineer, Satoshi Nagayama, aged 28, committed suicide in October 1988. After he was given an unfamiliar responsibility to develop and implement an experimental structural plan in April 1988, he had to continually revise his draft plans without the guidance or supervision of the management. In doing this he worked until midnight almost everyday and often stayed at his office overnight. It goes without saying that he worked even on Sunday or other statutory holiday. His overtime record for October submitted by the employer, Kawasaki Steel Corp. indicated that his overtime amounted to 85.5 hours. The record, however, did not include the period from midnight to 8:00 a.m., when he stayed at the company. After he stayed overnight twice during the previous week, he jumped from the rooftop of the company building at 8:30 a.m. on October 24, 1988. On the previous night he made his last call to his mother, saying that he could not go back home that night again because of work, and that he was exhausted.

Tokyo Central LSIO decided his death was occupational, for the following reasons:

1) The victim had been mentally over stressed because he had virtually the sole responsibility for completing the planning experiment, which was entirely unfamiliar to him. Moreover, he had been meeting the upcoming deadline, but repeated modifications in the plan increased his workload.

2) From a medical viewpoint, it is believed that he had showed a series of symptoms typical of reactive depression from July 1988, and suicidal thoughts, one of these symptoms, had apparently increased immediately before the event. It is believed that the increased workload aggravated his depression.

3) There were no other factors which would bring him mental stress, including psychological characteristics, relevant medical history, relationship with his family members or friends

4) It was concluded that he had suffered from depression solely because of significantly heavy mental stress due to his work, and that he had lost normal faculty of judgment when he committed suicide.

Nagayama's case is very important for the following reasons.

1) The first such case in 14 years This case represents the first suicide that was officially recognized to be attributed to overwork since April 1984, when a design engineer attempted suicide by jumping from a station platform as a result of psychogenic reaction due to overwork and stress.

2) The victim's death was certified to be occupational without previous consultation with psychiatrists The above-mentioned design engineer had been diagnosed as suffering from depression or psychogenic reaction, and treated before he attempted suicide. However Nagayama had not visited any psychiatrists before his sudden death. This means that he was retrospectively inferred to have been depressive due to his behavior. In fact, the LSIO adopted the argument presented by a psychiatrist on the victim's side, which concluded that the collected facts and interviews with his bereaved family suggested that he had been depressed before his suicide. The fact that no existing medical evidence was required for the decision is noteworthy because many of the reported suicides had not visited psychiatrists.

The case of a middle-aged sub-section chief

In February 1998, Okayama district court ruled that a middle-aged sub-section chief who had committed suicide should be indemnified by his employer, Kawasaki Steel Corp., because it had neglected its obligations to secure the safety of employees. The victim, Junichi Watanabe, aged 42, killed himself by leaping from the rooftop of the company building in June 1991.

When he was in the position of sub-section chief, Watanabe had no discretion regarding his working time. In fact, he had worked overtime for more than five hours every working day, and for 11 hours on holidays during the years previous to the tragedy. This means that his annual working hours, combined with the regular working hours, amounted to 2,071 hours, 2.3 times more than the regular annual working hours.

His incredible overwork stemmed from the challenging tasks assigned to him for developing a productivity improving plan, and changing the working shift. Despite his self-sacrificing efforts to achieve these tasks, he could not satisfy the preset goals, which led to the onset of depression in March 1991. The court determined that the depression was exacerbated during the following months, culminating in his paroxysmal suicide in June 1991.

The court ruling is of great importance for the following reasons :

1) The court recognized his status as a worker, although he held the position of sub-section chief. The Labor Standards Law stipulates that a manager who has a large discretion over working conditions should be covered. The court determined that Watanabe was not among this category of managers, considering his actual competence.

2) The court indicated that an unreasonably heavy overwork imposed on workers should be considered as negligence of safety obligations on the part of employers. The employer, Kawasaki Steel Corp. had limited maximum monthly overtime per person to about 20 hours. This meant that the excess was not counted as payable, and therefore documented overtime. This practice, which makes scandalous overwork clandestine, is known as "sabisu(service) zangyo" which means literally "voluntary overtime work." Not only Watanabe, but Nagayama as well were victims of sabisu-zangyo. The court clearly criticized this informal anti-worker practice pervading Japanese corporate culture.

The Nagayama and Watanabe cases represent only the most spectacular examples of work-related suicides. According to the Labor Ministry, cases of alleged occupational mental disorders including suicides filed with LSIO's for labor accident insurance coverage have been increasing in recent years, with 13 cases in 1995, 18 cases in 1996 and 23 cases in 1997. The fact that three cases of municipal workers who had committed suicide were successively determined to be eligible for official compensation benefits last February and March confirms this tendency.

In this context, last February the Labor Ministry set up a working group to determine specific criteria and procedures in examining mental disorders and suicides related to workload. The working group is expected to develop a set of certification criteria for occupational mental disorders, including suicides.

The Ministry has considered the absence of endogenous symptoms and factors other than work-related stress to be essential in determining the mental illnesses or suicides to be work-related. These requirements, however, don't always reflect the hazardous stress levels of many Japanese workers, and have served as a pretext for rejecting applications for certification from victims and surviving families. These factors need to be seen as underlying conditions which may be exacerbated by excessive workload, resulting in mental illness or suicidal thoughts. Work-induced cerebrocardiac diseases are authorized to be certified as work-associated when any relevant dispositions are found. A similar approach should be applied to overwork-induced mental diseases for official certification.


E-mail joshrc@jca.ax.apc.org
Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center (JOSHRC)
Z Bldg. 5F, 7-10-1 Kameido, Koto-ku, Tokyo 136-0071, Japan
FAX: 81-3-3636-3881