Karoshi: Death from overwork

There are many discussion points that always pop up on infosec Twitter every year: password managers, imposter syndrome, burnout, etc. But the one that I want to talk about today is burnout and why Japan is struggling to deal with it.

Karoshi: Death from overwork

There are many discussion points that always pop up on infosec Twitter every year: password managers, imposter syndrome, burnout, etc. But the one that I want to talk about today is burnout and why Japan is struggling to deal with it. Some of you may have heard of "karoshi" (death from overwork), it has become so much of a problem in Japan that now all trains have Deadman switches in case, the driver dies from being overworked. So how does a developed country like Japan have this issue?

The best way to start this blog is to have a look at my own small case of burnout which was a result of working non-stop for a whole month, jetlag and overall lack of sleep, but I have recently started to take time off in a form of a 4 day weekend that I took last week. So how is that any different than the average Japanese office worker? Well on average, someone working in Japan will have 16 days off if they are lucky. And I am not talking about their annual leave, I am talking about the number of national holidays that Japan has. So if they are unlucky and have to work on some of those days then we would be looking at less than 2 weeks for the whole year. And to top it off, most of those days are already occupied with tasks and traditions related to the specific national holidays. But surely they could just use their annual leave? Well, that would make sense, the average office worker in Japan has about 20 days of annual leave so add the 16 day of national holidays to that and you are looking at about a month worth of time off from work. So why does karoshi occur so much in Japan when they could have two 2-week holidays per year or multiple long weekends? Well, the answer is simple! They just don't take the time off. The average amount of time taken off is about around 50%. Well, that's not too bad then? Well, the problem with it is 99% of the time they take that 50% off is during specific periods like Golden week. And that's when most of the population in Japan takes their time off too. Which links back to one of the reasons why they don't take off the rest of the 50%.

The Reasons

If you have been following my journey through my cybersecurity career, you know that one of the reasons I give for Japan's current cybersecurity situation is the "losing face" problem. And it is one of the reasons why people don't take time off in Japan. But how would you embarrass yourself by taking time off? To understand this reason, you have to look at what happens when you take time off? Most people have worked in a team in their career, so when you take time off, your workload is shifted to the rest of your team. Now taking a day off because you were ill, probably won't affect your team that much but the real problem is your colleagues and boss will see it as you knowingly putting a burden on them by taking time off. So most of the reasons people give for why they don't take time off in Japan is based around the idea of them feeling guilty for putting a burden on their colleagues and disrupting the group harmony.


The Aftermath

The main consequences of taking time off are losing promotions. In the UK, the best way to get promoted is to be performing well at your job constantly. But in Japan, there is an extra step which is demonstrating your commitment to the job and company all the time. So taking time off is seen as the complete opposite of that and there have been many cases of people not getting promotions because they took time off when their colleagues haven't. You probably think that's not fair at all especially if you are forced to take time off for something like you being ill or a family emergency. Unfortunately, it has led to many uncomfortable decisions for people working in Japan. There are many stories of people missing funerals, birthdays, etc because of the "losing face" issue that the Japanese society has. And this is where a buzz word joins the chat, COVID-19 has led to many unfortunate events and changes to our lifestyles around the world including face masks. I recently saw a load of tweets from people wanting to continue wearing masks during the flu seasons in the winter as they didn't catch the flu this year. But they are late to the party as such, anyone who has ever visited any of the major Asian countries will probably have seen some locals wearing face masks. Now there are two main reasons for this, one is some people believe the masks help filter out pollution in the air and the other reason is people wear them when they have a cold to stop their colleagues from getting their cold. Until recently, I have been amazed and confused about why they would be wearing these face masks when face masks have limited protection against pollution and they could just stay home to decrease the risk of their cold being spread. But face masks are how the Japanese counter the problem of being ill and not wanting to take time off as they can just put on a mask and can just go to work with a decreased risk of infecting their colleagues.

The solution

So if taking time off in Japan is seen as a bad thing, what do they do to counter karoshi? They nap. They nap everywhere, you might have heard the bizarre cases of Japanese office workers falling asleep on the job or even on the metro. The habit of just falling asleep anywhere has become so common in Japan that there is now a word for it: "inemuri" or "present while sleeping"/"Doze". The Japanese ability to do this has caused some interesting situations for me like being stuck in my seat during a flight (that's another story for another day). But surely there are consequences for faceplanting your desk from being so exhausted? Well apart from having a sore face, it is unlikely you will face any punishment for falling asleep while you are working. A lot of companies including big tech companies like google and apple have recognised that having a 30-minute nap has improved overall performance and dedication to their employees' work. In Japan, it is seen as a sign of diligence and shows that the person is so dedicated to their work, that they have worked themselves to exhaustion. Now, this doesn't mean you could fall asleep all the time and whenever you want, there is some rule to inemuri.

Source: © Blisssaigon 2016

The first rule is who you are. To quote Dr Brigitte Steger, who is an Austrian sociologist with a special interest in Japanese culture: “If you are new in the company and have to show how actively you are involved, you cannot sleep. But if you are 40 or 50 years old and it is not directly your main topic, you can sleep. The higher up the social ladder you are, the more you can sleep”. The second rule is how you fall asleep or your posture. You have to be "present" when you fall asleep, you can't just pull out a pillow and blanket before laying down on your desk. The most common posture is the crossed arms over the chest and head down, which is common to see on the metro or during meetings. Especially during meetings where western languages like English is being spoken as those languages are much slower than Japanese. The third rule is don't be a bother. It's a simple rule of don't bother everyone else. That includes loud snoring, spreading yourself out, or drooling over the person next to you. The final rule is to be ready to wake up. When someone speaks to you, you need to be able to reply to them instead of just snoring and ignoring them.


Now I know this is another short blog again but I thought it would be a good one to do with the fact that I recently had time off and with burnout being one of the popular topics in the infosec community.

So, it is time to say a big thank you to everyone reading this week's blog. In terms of next week, I have a couple of ideas but I will have to wait and see how busy I get. So until next week, arigatou gozaimasu and sayōnara!