Editor’s note: this translated and edited article from Sina Hubei discusses a relatively new term that has entered the Chinese language: “guolaosi” (过劳死), which means death by overworking. The term, taken from the Japanese word “karoshi”, refers to employees who die suddenly due to working too hard for too long and who suffer from incredible amounts of work-related stress. In China, there has been a steady increase in cases where employees have died from overworking, and this article runs through several recent cases that highlight this phenomenon.

The term “guolaosi” (过劳死) has now made its way into the Chinese language, having been adapted from the Japanese word “karoshi”, which means death by overworking. The phenomenon derives from repeatedly working long, hard hours and experiencing intense stress, which in turns leads to the deterioration of health and in some cases, death. In recent years, news coverage regarding cases where people die from overworking have become more frequent, with the “guolaosi” issue now a hotly debated topic on Chinese internet forums. Below are several recent cases where employees from various companies have died suddenly due to overworking in an attempt to highlight the growing phenomenon.

death by overworking
Photo: GB Times

Taobao sellers die from overworking

1) Exhaustion causes sudden death
In 2011, Wei Wei, an owner of a Taobao shop died suddenly from exhaustion. Wei Wei’s shop was the biggest sofa supplier in Wuxi, and she spent over ten hours online everyday managing the business.

2) Mother of one dies from cerebral haemorrhage
On May 6 2012, a Weibo user named @Susu爱小可可 posted a message stating that the owner of an online home accessories store had died due to a cerebral haemorrhage. The owner was a woman named Susu who was 27 years old and a mother of one. Within 20 hours of the Weibo post going online, the news garnered 6,829 re-blogs and 7,200 comments. 

3) Woman passes away on the eve of wedding banquet
On July 20 2012, news regarding the sudden death of a 24 year-old Taobao seller from Hangzhou gathered a lot of attention on Weibo; especially as she passed away on the eve of her wedding banquet. There was no specific information regarding the cause of death, though a reporter learned from a friend of the woman that she was managing her online business, decorating her new apartment, and trying to lose weight all at the same time. Taobao itself expressed its grief on the website, and wrote a message that stated, “Even if business becomes more important, it shouldn’t eclipse the significance of living.”

4) Sales suspended after clothes seller dies
On October 27 2012, a message appeared on the page of a Taobao seller which read, “Hello. Due to the owner of the shop experiencing some misfortune from overworking, all sales are currently suspended. Thank you for your understanding.” It was later discovered that the owner of the online clothes shop, 29-year-old Xu Wenjun, had passed away on October 21.  

Foxconn: 13 suicide attempts in 4 months

From January 23 until May 27 2010, there were 13 instances of Foxconn employees attempting suicide by jumping from high buildings. Ten people died from jumping, while three were seriously injured. Foxconn employees are known for having gruelling round-the-clock shifts, so much that netting was installed at one plant in Shenzhen to prevent further suicide attempts.  

Kingsoft employee suddenly dies

In September 2012, a computer game worker who was employed for software developer Kingsoft suddenly died in his office. Netizens were quick to call the employee’s death yet another example of “guolaosi”. An official statement from Kingsoft later revealed that the police had reached their verdict regarding the incident, and that the sudden death was, “Due to a physical condition.”

Kingsoft then stated on September 3 that the employee had decided to sleep in the company building that night after work, and suddenly died in his sleep. Kingsoft went on to claim that from colleague testimonials and other records, the worker’s sudden death had nothing to do with his continuous working of overtime.   

Ogilvy & Mather employee dies from overworking

During the evening of May 13 2013, an employee who worked in the Beijing branch of international advertising and marketing agency Ogilvy & Mather died from a sudden heart attack in his office. The man, surnamed Li, was 24 years old. It was later revealed that Li had worked overtime for almost a month straight, and didn’t finish work until 23:00 each day.

The company later stated that a week before his passing away, Li didn’t appear to be in too good a state. Currently, the company are cooperating with Li’s family regarding various post-death arrangements. The official Weibo account of the China region of Ogilvy & Mather also released a statement regarding their grief over the matter. Li’s supervisor, a man surnamed Zeng, told a reporter, “He used to work for IBM. His education, skills, and this job, were the kind of things many people get envious about.”         

Source: Sina Hubei

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Keywords: karoshi death by overworking death by overwork

7 Comments Add your comment

1

DaqingDevil
comment|38717|58569

I don't want to appear too cynical but with probably 700 million - 800 million workers a few isolated cases hardly proves that they died from overwork. From my observations I could never believe that a bank worker, postal worker, supermarket attendant, security guard or a policeman would die from doing too much! I've found it hard to get service of any sort in many places and I am a bit bemused at just how many work places have beds tucked away in a corner somewhere to cater for that 2 hour lunch break and siesta. In our country they have post mortems and from those you can more accurately determine the cause of death rather than make a generalised comment that it was due to overwork! Now if you stated that schoolkids were dying from too much homework and insane study habits and lack of physical exercise........that I would start to believe!

Jul 04, 2013 07:02 Report Abuse

2

carlstar
comment|38721|5289

The numbers seem high but percentage wise they are pretty low. Even at Foxconn they have less suicides than other factories of a similar ilk, by percent a year that is.

Jul 04, 2013 09:18 Report Abuse

3

Sidicas
comment|38718|76460

My girlfriend runs a Taobao shop and I absolutely believe in the "die from overworking". The reason is because people end up going days or even weeks without any sleep at all because if you go "offline" then you immediately get far less sales and that could make the difference between making a little profit and losing money. The blame? Wanwan, QQ and Taobao! They use these instant message services to bridge the gap between buyer and seller which just creates a lot of stress for everybody. My girlfriend always says Chinese hate to use email, but I always keep telling her, that you never die from overwork while reading and replying to emails at your leisure. Compared to staying at a PC 24 hours a day for a week just so you're allowed to get some sales.

Jul 04, 2013 08:36 Report Abuse

4

lightend
comment|38726|41839

you know they are portable right? you can have them all installed on your phone, so can be out and about, you get a message then spend 10 mins dealing with that then continue what you were doing before, eventually getting home and sorting out the postal and payment thing. Its not hard, also chinese tend to not buy things after 11pm on the computer, so why she is staying at the office later is beyond me. Are you sure she isnt having an affair and saying she is working is easier than coming up with another excuse?

Jul 04, 2013 13:06 Report Abuse

5

Sidicas
comment|38769|76460

RE: lightend Obviously you don't run a Taobao shop. She uses a number of software applications that requires Windows which auto-reply to specific questions received over instant message. These software programs don't run on mobile devices. You can't seriously *WRITE* a conversation with multiple people at the same time on your phone, especially when they keep bombarding you URLs which you need to open in a web browser and check to see what they're looking at. Worse than that, every time you open them on a phone or a tablet, you get a "mobile" version of the page instead of the "desktop" version of the webpage so it's not the same as what they see. If you think you can deal with that, I'd love to see you try.. Especially with Chinese who get angry if they have to wait more than 1 minute for a reply. Not to mention, people keep asking the same questions over and over again because they don't know how to read a webpage. Trying to deal with that on a mobile device? I'd love to see you try. My girlfriend has gotten dozens of sales after 11pm before, especially on any Chinese holiday. We're together 24/7, so no other excuses.

Jul 05, 2013 10:58 Report Abuse

6

coineineagh
comment|41696|112751

Street sellers are also out and about for ridiculous amounts of time, often for meager profits.. This lure of internet profits is compounded with the importance of having money to save face in China. I write the rest of this under the assumption that these people aren't struggling to scrape by with a subsistence income, but are successful traders singlemindedly chasing cash until it kills them. I'd call it 'death from greed', 'stupidity' or 'shallowness' instead. As for the QQ/wanwan issues, just list your online hours in the automated message, and leave it at that. If you're online during the busiest hours anyway, how much profit could you possibly stand to lose? It it worth the toll it takes on your health and personal life? Have those people ever considered working shifts with a trusted family member (there are always family members willing to help, and you can train them in the needed skills), or perhaps an employee? If people are so enthralled and addicted to cash, then perhaps it's better that they die of stupidity.

Nov 30, 2013 14:58 Report Abuse

7

Guest849094
comment|38752|94343

I don't think Chinese is that hardworking they would end up dying from overwork. It's probably them playing too much online game, chatting, clubbing or watching movies hence the lack of sleep.

Jul 04, 2013 18:55 Report Abuse