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Japanese working to death more than ever

JAPAN: A record number of Japanese people literally worked themselves to death last year, the government said, despite campaigns to ease the country’s notoriously long office hours.

Some 355 workers fell severely ill or died from overwork in the year to March, the highest figure on record and 7.6 percent up from the previous year, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour said.

Of the total, 147 people died, many from strokes or heart attacks.

Death from overwork grew so common during Japan’s post-World War II economic miracle that the country coined a word for it, “karoshi.”

The government has tried to address the problem by promoting telecommuting and encouraging workers to take leave when they start families or need to care for elderly parents.

But as the world’s second largest economy posts a record-long expansion, critics point to the rising number of part-time jobs, saying new employees lack the security that would allow them to resist pressure to overwork.

Mikio Mizuno, a lawyer who has long fought to stop karoshi, said that the growing number of part-timers has also increased the workload and pressure on young full-time employees.

“Those in their 20s and 30s, who still have some physical strength, tend to push themselves beyond the limit,” Mizuno said.

“They can suddenly come down with an irregular pulse or a heart attack. As for what triggered it, you can’t think of anything else but overwork.”

The labour ministry said it rejected nearly half of the record 938 worker claims filed in the last financial year seeking compensation for suspected illness or death from overwork.

Among the 355 cases of worker compensation approved, the largest age group or 141 cases are those in their 50s, the report said.

But the number of such workers in their 30s shot up by 31 percent from the previous year.

“We saw that the trend of people in their 20s and 30s being most prone to mental diseases was particularly strong in the past year,” said labour ministry official Takashi Amano.

“The working environment still remained severe for workers,” he said.

“In many cases, workers faced so many demands while receiving limited support, putting strenuous pressure on them mentally.”

A total of 819 workers suggested they became mentally ill due to overwork, with 205 of them given compensation, according to the ministry data released Wednesday.

Mentally troubled workers killed themselves or attempted to do so in 176 cases, of which a record 66 cases were found eligible for benefits, the ministry report said.

Among applicants seeking worker compensation for their mental problems, those in their 30s account for the largest number at 40 percent, followed by those in their 20s at 18.5 percent.

The occupational group most prone to death or disease from overwork was the transport industry, which accounted for 27 percent of all the applicants found eligible for compensation.

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