Generation 'Next' and Karoshi

April 1, 2008

It’s enough to make your head spin !

Earlier this week I had lunch with the Vice-President, Human Resources of a large technology company. The conversation touched many subjects including how her firm is dealing with an aging senior management team. She mentioned that as part of a series of succession planning initiatives, her company recently conducted a survey of the attitudes, motivations and ambitions of their highest potential young employees. The findings included the revelation that a large percentage of the next gen set does not aspire to VP level roles in the company. In fact they consider many of the current senior management team ‘workaholic lifers’, not exactly the description you would associate with supposed role models. The confused firm has gone back to the succession planning playbook for help.
Now, consider a news story in today’s Globe and Mail. Titled, ‘Toyota’s Overtime Pay Raised After Death of Worker’ the article reports that the automotive giant has agreed to boost overtime pay for its employees after a ‘court ruling that found a worker, who collapsed at a plant, had died of overwork, or Karoshi’.

Prior to agreeing to the changes, Toyota had insisted that quality improvement efforts that extend beyond the regular work day are voluntary ‘service overtime’. Such overtime is collegial in nature, bringing together cross functional people in support of the company’s goals. As a Toyota spokeman said, voluntary overtime is ‘good for the cultivation of human resources’. For this reason Toyota has traditionally limited overtime pay for ‘extra’ work to 2 hours per month. Unfortunately, the worker who died had averaged a full 100 hours of such ‘volunteer time’ per month.

By all accounts this death is no isolated event. There is even a “Karoshi Hotline’ website (http://karoshi.jp/english/overwork.html) featuring an article called “Prevention Of Death From Overwork And Remedies For Its Victims”. I look forward to reading that article as I am not exactly sure how you remedy being dead.

While workoholism endures as a pejorative term in the English language, I am unaware of an equivalent for Karoshi which connotes some odd eastern blend of over-the–top kamikaze devotion and commitment. But based on the comments of the Canadian VP of Human Resources there appears no rush to start looking for such an English word anytime soon..