Beware: your job may be killing you, warns Josei Seven (Jan 20-27).
Work is a right and an obligation, protected as such by Article 27 of Japan’s Constitution. Work confers dignity, pride and independence. The worst evils of industrial capitalism in its earliest phase – danger to life and limb, exploitation, the absolute lack of protection for those worked sometimes literally to death by employers whose pursuit of profit was subject to no government regulation – are supposedly long behind us. The reforms of the past 100 years are legion and substantial. And yet some figures pertaining to the teaching profession – one of the more benign, one would have thought – seem to justify the magazine’s concern.
An online poll of 7,000 teachers last summer shows elementary school teachers working on average 90 hours and 16 minutes overtime a month. That’s nothing compared to junior high school teachers, who average 120 hours and 12 minutes.
There’s a standard called the “karoshi line.” Karoshi means death from overwork. The “line” stands at 80 hours overtime a month. Over that line, your life is in danger. Anything near it threatens mental and physical health. Senior high school teachers, less pressed than their elementary and junior high school counterparts, are still over the line at 83 hours 32 minutes.
It’s a jungle out there, and it’s not just teaching – although it seems worth noting in passing that the same poll cites average break time during the day: 11.7 minutes for elementary school and 15.5 minutes for junior high school teachers. “Average” may yield a distorted image: one-third of teachers say they get no break at all – “zero minutes.”
Occupational hazards as industrialization got off the ground were mainly physical – foul air, oppressive noise, hazardous machines and materials and so on. Now, Josei Seven notes, laws and regulations having reduced the worst of those, they tend to be more psychological – power harassment, the suppression of personal initiative in favor of set and inviolable procedure, a feeling that “no matter how hard I work my efforts are getting me nowhere.”
Those issues may touch any employment sector. Others are career-specific. No profession faces greater pressure as the corona virus rages than the health sector – doctors, nurses, welfare workers, caregivers. The magazine mentions one Nagano Prefecture hospital whose staff in May 2020 logged 327 overtime hours – the karoshi line times 4. That’s exceptional, but it does happen.
It’s not just the hours but the burden of constant, unremitting responsibility that takes its toll. Far more easygoing, it might seem, is the transport sector. You sit and drive – free, ordinarily, of life-and-death decision-making. But sitting long hours is not good for you, as long-distance airline passengers know through so-called economy-class syndrome. Taxi drivers, bus drivers and truckers are vulnerable on a daily basis to roughly the same thing, leading to a heart attack risk that’s 1.65 times higher than that faced by the general population.
Low-income workers – and nearly 40 percent of Japan’s workforce is part-time – suffer not only the hazards peculiar to their line of work but additional ones characteristic of poverty. Feeling ill, they can’t take time off for medical attention; it might get them laid off. Even if it doesn’t, an income barely sufficient for daily needs can’t bear the strain of medical expenses. Symptoms are ignored in the hope they’ll go away. They may. Or they may get worse.
Pregnant workers face their own set of problems. They may need rest which their work, depending on its nature, may not accord them. Most dangerous in that regard, Josei Seven says, is the service sector, where clients must be met at their convenience, not at yours or your unborn child’s.
Josei Seven closes on an optimistic note. If in trouble, it advises, consult a lawyer. Free legal advice is available, and legal protections are in force. Options exist today that didn’t 100 years ago. That’s progress, if less marked than it should be.© Japan Today