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Dying From Overwork

By Stephen Shenfield January 10, 2022 No Comments 2 Min Read

In 2021 the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization published the first global study of loss of life and health associated with working long hours. In 2016, according to their calculations, 398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart disease, totaling 745,000, by working 55 or more hours a week. 

Moreover, the number of people working long hours is increasing. In response to the Covid pandemic, employers have cut payrolls but imposed longer hours on those still working.

The regions worst affected by dying from overwork are the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. The long working hours typical of East Asia are reflected in an unusual feature of the three main languages of the region. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean each have a word meaning ‘death from overwork’ – guolaosi in Chinese, karoshi in Japanese, and gwarosa in Korean.

In China the extreme ‘work culture’ is symbolized by a combination of numbers – 996. That is, 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week – a 72-hour week. Although work sometimes goes on until even later – to 11.30 pm or even midnight. And this despite laws that limit working hours to 8 per day and 44 per week. 

No wonder that placards held up by protestors read 996.ICU (ICU – Intensive Care Unit). 

Why are people still dying from overwork – nearly two centuries since workers began to fight for the eight-hour day? And surely the spread of automation should bring us shorter hours?

A manager in a web media company in Beijing explained the pressure for long hours as follows:

996 is inevitable. If you don’t do it someone else will. In fact, it’s the same from the perspective of the company. Even if you don’t work overtime, other companies will. Then the costs of your company will increase, your efficiency will decrease, and you will be overtaken by others… Because the people around you are running forward you dare not stop.

UNLESS the voice of the people makes itself heard and halts the race. And then, finally, everyone stops.


China Labor Bulletin

See also: ‘May Day: the endless fight for the eight-hour day’

Written By

I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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