Japan is working itself to death. The frequently recurring term karoshi (death from overwork) suggests as much. It’s an indirect rather than a direct cause of death, which makes statistical precision difficult, but, as a rough standard, 80 hours a month of overtime work in the months leading up to a victim’s death from a heart attack or stroke or suicide will back a claim for karoshi compensation.
Karoshi is generally associated with the private sector and its ruthlessly exploitative “black companies,” but among workers lately toiling “borderline karoshi” overtime hours are, says Shukan Toyo Keizai (Sept. 16), professionals you might not expect to find in such a plight: public school teachers.
Not all of them, but significant percentages: Nearly 60% of junior high school teachers, and 30% of their elementary school counterparts, work 60 hours or more a week, education ministry figures show.
It’s a relatively new development, brought on by aging teachers whose retiring ranks cannot be replaced rapidly enough, and by social change, of which more in a moment. Teachers today work on average 4.5 hours a week more than they did 10 years ago – “not counting work done at home,” one teacher is quick to point out – and though only one case of officially recognized karoshi among teachers is mentioned, teachers regularly complain of endless working days and no time off. “At this rate,” says one, “I’ll surely break down physically.”
The one who succumbed – in June 2011 – was a 26-year-old Osaka-area junior high school teacher. It was his second year on the job and he was highly dedicated, maybe too much so. To teach good lessons requires preparation. He prepared. There’s after-school club activity to supervise. He threw himself into that too, and into keeping in touch with parents. He was working 60-70 hours a month overtime, but actually more than that because test grading and lesson preparation are not counted as “work.” One day he collapsed in his apartment. Three years later his death was officially recognized as karoshi.
Public school teachers are supposed to work 38 hours, 45 minutes a week, but “I’m lucky when I get out at 8 p.m.,” says one Tokyo-area teacher in her 40s who typically starts work at 8 a.m. The day begins with supervised free classroom activity, followed by the first period starting at 8:45. Lunchtime is spent wolfing down something while providing guidance or preparing. After the last class at 3:25, there’s cleanup, then meetings, then club supervision and so on. By the time that’s over, it’s 6:30. Home? Only if she takes her remaining work home with her – more test grading, more lesson planning. Or else a parent will call, requesting, if not demanding, a consultation.
Weekends are as likely as not taken up with club activities. That can be especially trying, Toyo Keizai finds. A club can be anything – music, culture, sports. Every teacher is assigned to a club. Teachers are typically asked to state a preference, and when possible the preference is taken into account, but it can’t always be, and teachers who find themselves “advisors” to activities they know nothing about are in a particularly stressful situation.
The social change referred to above is placing an unprecedented burden on schools. Time was, school was one of three educators, the others being the family and the community. But family time and energy are now limited by the fact that both parents are likely to work – and by a rise in the number of single-parent households. The active interest formerly taken by the community in its children is far less in evidence now. There remains school, which must pick up the slack. Symbolic of that is the addition next year to the elementary and junior high school curriculum of “moral education,” which family and community used to provide but no longer do to the same degree. Teachers are bracing for additional burdens, rather than hoping for alleviation.© Japan Today