Karoshi: Death by overworking

Trust the Japanese to come up with a word to describe “death by overworking”. This phenomenon led the Japanese Ministry of Health and Labour to set guidelines for the maximum number of hours per month: 45 hours of overtime (ie. above your normal working hours).

This number of hours is known as the Karsoshi Line.

On Christmas evening 2015, newly hired Ms. Matsuri Takahashi, then 24, threw herself from the top floor of the dormitory of Dentsu, Japan’s largest and most prestigious advertising firm. The Japanese Mota Labor Standard Inspection Office ruled that Takahashi’s suicide was karoshi – death from overwork.

Before the suicide, she had left a note for her mother which asked: “Why do things have to be so hard?”

In the weeks leading up to her death, she reportedly began writing messages on Twitter complaining about workplace bullying and being forced to work extremely long hours. “It’s 4 o’clock. My body is trembling … I just can’t do this. I’m gonna die. I’m so tired,” one message reads.

Work, especially work that is merely a source of income, can bring about mental stress and that could lead to suicide. The International Labour Organisation cites the following causes of occupational stress:

  • All-night, late-night or holiday work
  • Frustration at not being able to achieve goals set by company
  • Forced resignation, dismissal and bullying

It won’t take very much for you to agree with me that work related stress can be fatal. From heart attacks to strokes and suicide arising from difficulties in the mind.

If ordinary workers cannot cope, how then do we expect domestic helpers to do any better? Domestic helpers spend 24 hours at their place of work. Many start their day very early in the morning and have to cope with the demand of infants, toddlers, young children and the elderly. Their routine include physically demanding work such as cleaning, lifting, cooking (and consequently planning for meals), care for pets and meeting the quality expected of an employer.

Mirrors must shine, dust cannot be found on every crevice, beds must be made, clothes uncreased, the elderly must be pleased with your service, children cannot be left unattended, cars must be washed daily regardless of whether it is dirty or not, some clothes must be washed in this manner, other clothes must be washed by hand, these shoes cannot mix with those, these baby’s clothes must be treated differently, this lotion must be applied on to this old man’s leg, must remember his medication each morning except for this other medication only after meals on Fridays…and so on, and so forth.

And then because of their inability to communicate fluently, the risk of misunderstanding is very high. Emotion and instruction are frequently misread.

They work for very small salaries and frequently asked not to take weekends off.

Singaporeans are also not the easiest of employers. We’re conditioned by the efficiency of our society to demand similar standards of ourselves, our vendors and even our maids.

The norms of discipline amongst Singaporean employers demand that the maids do not use the internet. Often, mobile phones are confiscated. This is actually quite a stupid thing to practice – the maids need a social outlet to let off steam, cutting them off from contact with friends and family creates dangerous pressure in the girl and you do not know how this pressure will finally manifest itself.

In early June 2017 Ms. Zin Mar Oo, a Burmese national working in Singapore as a domestic helper, leapt 19 stories to her death at the Interlace. Accounts on social media alleged that the girl was mistreated, not given adequate food and even then, at consistent hours and not given sufficient rest. These claims are currently being investigated.

However, even without ill treatment it is already very hard on a maid, for the reasons discussed above. Very few people can sustain living at their place of work for 24 hours, required to respond even during rest hours and performing physical work from early morning till late at night.

During peace time, even soldiers in the military are given adequate rest, work on shift duties and given sufficient food and rest to help with their mental health!

Maids are not superhuman. They are very human and very woman. They have feelings, they get hurt, they feel sad and studies tell us that women deal with stress very differently. They undergo what is known as a “slow burn” and eventually erupt in an act of violence (The Psychology of Female Violence, Ana Mota) or suicide, an act of retributive response.

If you have a domestic helper, do consider these things. Don’t just say that “they’re here for the money and therefore they better obey my demands”. It is not so easy. We are all creatures of feelings and can’t help but react to the world around us.

Here are a few agencies you can call for help. You can ask for a counsellor, you can ask for mediators, you can ask for translators to facilitate communication between you and your helper:

Centre for Domestic Employees: 1800 2255 233 (24hrs)
Ministry of Manpower, FDW helpline: 1800 339 5505
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics: 6344 0224

Should you know anyone who is in distress, here are some hotlines you can dial:

Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800






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