Karōshi – The Untold Deadly Cost of Overwork

I imagined how things would turn out if I had accepted the marketing manager position ten years ago. The traffic to work was stressful enough. I’d seen how some of my colleagues woke up at 4 a.m. just to beat it and left work at 7 p.m. just to beat the traffic again. So, I said no to a lucrative job that could have changed my fortunes.

The pay was good, and the software company had a good reputation, but I didn’t want that option. I declined the offer over the phone. My friends were shocked, and I surprised myself. I chose being over doing just like that. I was terrified, but I had seen enough to know it wasn’t the career trajectory for me.

The World Health Organization estimates that hundreds of thousands die from work-related stress annually. “Long working hours led to 745 000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29 per cent increase since 2000,” WHO reported in 2021.

This is Karōshi.

A Japanese term that sends shivers down the spines of workaholics everywhere. It translates literally to “death from overwork.” Not burnout, not exhaustion — death. Sudden heart attack. Stroke. Collapse from sheer depletion. Karōshi victims suffer heart attacks, strokes, and even mental breakdowns that lead to suicide, all fuelled by the relentless pressure to perform.

It’s not an exaggeration. In Japan, karōshi is a recognized health problem. The human cost of our relentless drive to do more is alarming.

“Three months before he was due to be reunited with his wife and daughter in the Philippines, Joey Tocnang’s punishing work schedule finally took its toll. In April 2014, the 27-year-old trainee at a casting company in central Japan died of heart failure at his firm’s dormitory,” writes Justin McCurry in Tokyo for the Guardian.

Karōshi isn’t a Japanese problem. It’s a global tragedy. We just don’t have a fancy word for it. We glorify hustle culture. We answer emails at dinner, take conference calls on vacation, and wear our exhaustion as a badge of honour. Sound familiar?

We equate busyness with productivity and worth. Some companies celebrate employees who sacrifice time, a lot of time, for the company. Burning out doesn’t make us heroes; it makes us ineffective. Chronic stress impairs cognitive function.

Karoshi isn’t just spending long hours at work; it’s pushing yourself to the physical and mental brink. Stroke and heart attack become unexpected but awful end of it all as your body rebels against the relentless grind.

The tragedy of overwork

The pressure, the isolation, the feeling of being perpetually behind — it all builds, merging into a suffocating anxiety and depression. Chronic stress weakens your immune system. It puts you at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and even mental illness.

You think you’re being productive? You’re slowly killing yourself. In extreme cases, this pressure explodes in Karōjisatsu — suicide driven by overwork.

We’re all susceptible to the tragedy of overwork and the pressure to constantly “be on.” We desperately want promotions, bigger paychecks, and the illusion of success, all while neglecting the most important thing: ourselves.

How many times have you ignored warning signs — the fatigue, the constant headaches, the irritability, exhaustion and the mental drain?

We’re drowning in relentless work, like a scene from a novel, but the reality of Karoshi is too grave to ignore. “Death from overwork” is real.

We push through, telling ourselves it’s just a phase, that somehow, someday, it’ll all be worth it. But what if it’s not? What if that pay rise, promotion, climb, and hustle come at the cost of your health, your sanity, and even your life?

So, how do we break free? There’s no easy answer.

Challenge your own mindset. Is that extra hour at the office really necessary, or are you just avoiding something else? Prioritize ruthlessly. Learn to say no. Your boss might not like it, but you are prioritising your health. Take more breaks. Get up, walk around, stretch. Let your eyes take a break from the screen. Go for a walk outside. Sunlight is a natural mood booster and sleep regulator.

It takes a conscious effort to be.

You need to be your own advocate. Start by setting boundaries. Clock out and disconnect after work hours. It’s hard, but the alternative is too dangerous to ignore. Prioritise sleep — it’s not a luxury. When you sleep, your brain consolidates memories, repairs tissues, and regulates hormones. You wake up sharper, more creative, and ready to tackle the day.

Karōshi is a warning.

“In 2015 alone, 93 suicides and attempted suicides were officially recognized as overwork deaths, reports Mercury News.” According to a 2016 government survey, roughly one in five Japanese workers are a risk of karoshi. We didn’t listen to real human stories in the 80’s and 90’s.

We are still working ourselves to death.

Take back control of your time. Rethink your relationship with work. If you find yourself constantly exhausted, dreading Mondays, and neglecting your health, it’s a wake-up call. Talk to your employer. Advocate for healthy work-life boundaries. Discuss flexible schedules and remote work options.

Life is meant to be savoured, not just endured. When work becomes all-consuming, you miss out on time with loved ones, meaningful experiences, and simply being. Karōshi still reminds us of the dark side of our relentless work culture. It’s time to heed the warning.

Karōshi is a brutal consequence, but avoidable.

Take care.

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Categorized as Work