Death by a thousand cuts, UK style | Barbara Ellen

Barbara Ellen
Yukimi Takahashi, the mother of Matsuri Takahashi, who took her life over a relentless work schedule. Photograph: KYODO/Reuters

Japanese advertising agency Dentsu has been fined a meagre 500,000 yen (£3,385) for forcing staff to work illegally long overtime after a worker, Matsuri Takahashi, 24, was driven to despair by her relentless work schedule, taking her own life on Christmas Day, 2015. In Japan, this is known as karoshi (“death by overwork”). In another karoshi case, from 2013, a 31-year-old woman, Miwa Sado, died of heart failure, after being overworked at a public broadcaster.

The deaths of Takahashi and Sado triggered international debate, yet, here in the UK, is karoshi really such an outlandish concept? The cliched image of overwork could be a high-achiever who doesn’t know when to stop. However, what about the other (low- paid, insecure) end of the scale – what one might term zero-hours karoshi?

Or benefits karoshi, considering that claimants are routinely harassed and even disabled people are intimidated out of the welfare system?

Already, there have been reports that disabled people have taken their own lives, or felt close to suicide, because they’ve been judged fit to work when they’re evidently not. Now the tangled welfare spaghetti of the universal credit system looks primed to make even more claimants despair.

However much we gape at the brutal culture of overwork in countries such as Japan, perhaps it’s just that, in Britain, karoshi comes in different forms. Instead of death from the stress of overwork, it’s death from the stress of trying to work or being unable to work. If death caused by the stress of overwork is a socioeconomic outrage (and it should be) then so surely are any deaths caused, overtly or covertly, by the stress of worklessness. With this in mind, it might be a mistake to wonder if karoshi could happen here – in a sense, it already has.