Working to Death in China

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East Asian work culture is world renowned for its long hours and exhausted laborers. Japanese salary men hustling to catch the last train home, their sleeping bodies stretched out along the seats (sometimes in curiously uncomfortable positions), is an image familiar to many people across the world.

Potentially suicidal devotion to work has in recent decades been viewed as a plague, especially among the Japanese. The Japanese term karōshi, literally death from overwork, has entered the lexicon of Western journalists and medical practitioners. It even has its own Wikipedia entry.

Despite having the some of the world’s best-kept records on the subject, however, death from overwork is far from unique to Japan. Instances of it have been known to occur the world over, not least in China, which now reportedly leads the world in work exhaustion-related deaths.

It is estimated that some 600,000 people die from work-related stress and its effects every year in China.

This number comes as no surprise to those familiar with the anti-suicide nets in infamous Chinese labor mills such as Foxconn. Long hours, rough conditions, low pay and poor future prospects have been a recipe for work stress-induced suicide at facilities across the country.

While such figures remain alarmingly high, they account for a relatively small percentage of the total number of karōshi victims in China. Perhaps surprisingly, manual laborers have largely proved resilient to poor work conditions and strenuous physical demands. It’s the so-called “mental labor” jobs, such as those in the advertising field, that have been the primary contributor to dangerously high levels of work-related stress.

These kinds of jobs can be found at all socioeconomic levels, with a slightly disproportionate representation by the middle class. IT employees have shown some of the highest levels of work-related stress with 98.8 percent reporting the negative influence of their job on personal health.

Such health risks include insomnia, listlessness, weight gain and long recovery times for small illnesses such as the common cold. Long-term exposure to these conditions can lead to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, which in turn can cause heart disease and stroke – the primary killer of karōshi victims in China.

For the scores of young people in China’s modern metropolises regularly working copious amounts of (usually unpaid) overtime, this information is already old news. Competition for comfortable and well-paid positions in Shanghai or Beijing is notoriously fierce. Those without proper guanxi, or social connections, often never reap the benefits of their death-defying hard work. Much of China’s middle class, especially the young, earn only a fraction what their Western or Japanese workaholic counterparts do.

China’s financial capital of Shanghai has recently seen a sharp increase in the average marrying age of its citizens. The jump is attributed largely to the demanding work pace, which in turn is often justified by traditional cultural requirements of having purchased a house and car before marriage.

The rise of workaholic culture has also coincided with decreasing birth rates in cities and towns, including areas where couples are allowed to have more than one child. The expense of childcare and the parents’ inability to care for children are two contributing factors. In this sense, China is mirroring the same effects Japan has seen from its own overworked populace.

In the absence of widespread social reform, there is a small push to offer insurance for those who die from overwork. The lack of concrete links between cause of death and work-related stress currently makes the struggle an uphill battle.

As China marches its way toward unparalleled economic prominence on the world stage, many issues will stand in its way, including environmental concerns, political corruption and domestic insurgency. Now add an increasingly beleaguered workforce. As in Japan, it is an issue the government cannot afford to ignore.

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