Karoshi and the call for a new cognitive revolution

Dima El Hassan| The Daily Star

“It’s 4 a.m., my body’s trembling … I’m going to die. I’m so tired … I want to die … I’m physically and mentally shattered.” Those were the last posts on social media of the latest “karoshi” victim, Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old Japanese girl who’d worked 105 hours’ overtime in one month at Dentsu, an ad agency in Japan.

“Karoshi” or “death from overwork” is a phenomenon that some countries, notably Japan, are increasingly witnessing over the last decade. Hundreds of karoshi victims are reported yearly. According to a latest report by the Japanese Labor Ministry, claims of karoshi had risen to a record of 2,310 by 2015. Twenty percent of the Japanese labor force are at risk of karoshi, be it through strokes, heart attacks, suicide or other serious health problems. “We can see many reasons why the problem is becoming more acute, but the single largest reason is the excessive sense of competition in society here,” said Hiroshi Kawahito, president of the Tokyo-based Kawahito Law Office and head of the National Defence Counsel for Victims of Karoshi, as quoted last October in an article by the South China Morning Post.

The escalating situation has urged governments of many concerned countries, among which are Japan, South Korea and China, to reconsider work-life balance at the policy level. Some employers too have begun to take new measures encouraging people to work less, after realizing that spending additional hours on tasks won’t necessarily boost productivity or generate extra profit.

Overstress is mainly the reason behind karoshi. Stress in that sense is either related to competition, seeking social or economic recognition, personal achievement, or fear of organizational harassment and abuse.

The stress problem is serious and contemporary. It’s not only Japan, and it doesn’t have to lead to death. It is about living in the world of the 21st century. It’s linked to the multifaceted personalities or behaviors a “millennial” is often impelled to have in order to keep pace with and adapt to the 21st century socioeconomic-cultural requirements.

The social trend today requires us to have different behaviors bouncing between our work life and personal life. The challenge here is how to balance between them and remain sane within this sophisticated capitalized world.

We used to resent the fact that dedicating extra hours at work brings the success we need at the expense our personal lives. Is this still valid with the dreadful stress it entails leading to the emergence of terms like karoshi? And if professional success is the main drive, do we really need it in our modern life whereby digital technology is the leading power governing our life in every way and questioning as such what then really matters in this modern life? Some put more value on individual achievements while others on organizational ones, but we all seek rewarding relationships behind our personal success.

Nonetheless, social progression and recognition are typically attained by people evaluating one another based on indicators limited to academic grades, key work performance indicators, job titles and other career metrics.

However, the cognitive nature of the human being tells us that our life should not and cannot be governed or even directed by these limited “metrics” that control the way we live.

According to Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book “Sapiens,” the cognitive revolution, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, initiated the action of the brain into the human body leading to the survival of the human “Sapien” while applying his/her cognitive skills to overcome the “animal” side of the human being.

Today, a new human revolution seems needed to overcome the “machine” side of the human being with karoshi as one of its cruelest faces. A revolution that calls for humanizing the human brain.

Dima El Hassan is the director of programs at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development. Email her at dima.h@hariri-foundation.org.