You probably know that having a toxic job that stresses you out and sucks the soul out of you isn’t exactly good for you. As a physician who has experienced work stress myself, as well as witnessing it in my patients, it’s obvious to me that work stress is poisonous and can translate into physical symptoms. You know this already. Anyone who has ever gotten a migraine after a deal went bad or stiff shoulders after the boss criticized him can attest to that.
But did you realize that work stress can actually kill you?
In Japan, they even have a word for it - karoshi - which is defined as “death by overwork.” Karoshi usually happens to relatively young, otherwise healthy people who are burning the candle at both ends in a less-than-dreamy work environment.
The first case of karoshi was reported in 1969, when a worker died of a stroke at the age of 29. But it wasn’t until 1987 that the Japan Ministry of Labor began collecting statistics on karoshi. Since that time, Japanese officials estimate that approximately 10,000 cases of karoshi occur each year.
This should be big news! Some lawyers and scholars even claim that the number of karoshi deaths in Japan equals or exceeds the number of traffic accident fatalities each year. But when was the last time your doctor added “Alleviate work stress” to your preventive maintenance or treatment plan?
What Happens Physiologically When People Die of Karoshi?
Karoshi is not a single disease. It’s a constellation of what are believed to be stress-induced physiological changes that usually lead to either sudden cardiac death or stroke, most likely caused by repetitive triggering of the “fight-or-flight” stress response that activates the sympathetic nervous system, raises blood pressure and heart rate, and overstresses the cardiovascular system.
Just before dying, most karoshi victims complain of varying combinations of dizziness, nausea, severe headache and stomach ache. In 95% of karoshi cases, death occurs within 24 hours of the onset of severe symptoms, though milder symptoms sometimes precede the severe ones. (If you’re stressed at work, do any of these symptoms sound familiar to you? If so, listen up. That’s your body telling you your work could be harming your health.)