Karoshi to the Code du Travail: Why it's hard to head off worker burnout with laws

Stressed-out workers cost countries a lot of time and money, but Japan and France have learned that enshrined protections in law can trigger an unintended cultural clash.

Japan, France have learned how enshrining protections in law can have unintended consequences

A man holds a copy of the 'Labour Code - Code du Travail' while taking part in a nationwide day of protest against labour reforms in Bordeaux, France, on March 9, 2016. The next year, France enshrined the 'right to disconnect' into law, so that employees don't have to deal with work emails during off hours. (Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images)

Leaving aside the personal and human toll, stressed-out workers cost countries a lot of time and money. 

The U.K.'s Health and Safety Executive said more than 11 million days were lost to work-stress, anxiety and depression in 2015-2016. In 2012, the German labour minister said stress leave and early retirement from worker burnout was costing the country up to $10 billion a year. 

But even when governments act, it's not clear policy alone can solve the problem.

Take Japan, where overwork thrives. 

"Blue and white collar workers ... have a sense of guilt to leave the office," says Keiichiro  Hamaguchi of the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training.

Last year, an Expedia survey found 58 per cent of Japanese respondents felt guilty for taking a vacation. This year, some workers are even complaining about the special 10-day nationwide holiday at the end of the month to mark Emperor Akihito's abdication.

"The Japanese workplace is a very collective atmosphere," Hamaguchi says, adding that it's as if each worker has no individual job description. 

"The job description is attributed to the division or department," he says. "So if the department hasn't completed their task, then any member should not leave the office."

At its most extreme, this work mentality leads to "karōshi," the well-worn term in Japanese society for death from overwork.

WATCH: How the physical and mental demands of shift work can take a toll on workers:

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In 2017, karōshi was officially blamed for 190 deaths. One case that has made headlines in recent weeks is that of a 31-year-old space agency contractor who killed himself after working more than 70 hours of unpaid overtime a month.

It's believed there are far more than the officially reported cases, with some estimating that unreported deaths due to overwork in Japan number in the thousands each year. 

It's an open secret in Japanese society that has rarely prompted serious action from governments. Until now.

A law went into effect in April limiting overtime to 45 hours a month for big companies and mandating the use of vacation days (although overtime caps can still be increased to 100 hours during busy periods).

The government also started a national "stress check" program, including a questionnaire that asks employees to rate everything from office dynamics to their exhaustion levels – even whether they've had diarrhea.

Preliminary research on the "stress check" shows some promise in figuring out which high-stress workers may go on disability leave, but little effect on actually reducing stress and mental health disorders.

Meanwhile, critics of the new overtime law say it has too many exemptions and may end up encouraging unpaid overtime. 

France's 'right to disconnect'

Then there's France. 

The land of the 35-hour workweek isn't entirely free from burnout. As many as a quarter of French employees say they're "hyper-stressed" and anxious about work. 

Surprising, perhaps, from a country that in 2017 enshrined the "right to disconnect" into law. Now, employees don't have to deal with work emails during their off hours. 

"We have many people who talk about how they wake up and the first thing they do is check their emails," says Anna Cox of University College London, who studies our constantly connected culture. "So they're already thinking about work before they're even out of bed."

She says it's too early to say whether France's policy has been effective, but in order for it to work elsewhere, there needs to be buy-in at the company level. 

"It's one thing saying that people have the right," Cox says. "It's quite another thing for people to feel that the culture within their organization is supportive of that right."

WATCH: How can governments help stop overwork among workers?

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The "right to disconnect" is yet another brick in the wall that is the French labour code – more than 3,300 pages laying out worker protections, including five weeks of vacation. But just as it is loved, it is loathed by those who feel it is part of the reason for France's current economic woes. 

"Over the last 10 years, France has suffered from a high unemployment rate and weakened productivity," French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said earlier this month.

Emmanuel Macron's government has enacted reforms, bringing what it calls "flexibility" to businesses, including loosening the standards for firing employees. The move has drawn massive protests during Macron's presidency, including by the "yellow vest" movement who see him as favouring business over workers

A lesson for Canada 

What can Canada learn from different approaches to workplace burnout around the world? 

"I think what we're seeing in both the Japanese case and in the French case it's hard to legislate culture," says Sunil Johal, policy director at the Mowat Centre, a University of Toronto think-tank. 

Johal is leading an expert panel advising the Canadian government on modern labour standards, including how best to deal with worker stress. Johal says blanket policies won't work because each business is different, even within sectors. 

"Trucking is different than banking, is different than law, is different than retail," Johal says. "I don't think it's really the government's place to get into those very fine details. But I think there should be a little bit of a push to have people think about these issues [and] be transparent about what their plans are."

He adds that employees are now talking about burnout in a real way, so it's in the interest of businesses to take action without waiting for new government policy. 

"In a competitive marketplace, if you're a company that's moving ahead with progressive policies, you're going to get the best talent."

With files from Jasmine Mani and Adam Miller

Burnout: Stress at Work

From how we think about our jobs, to where and when we do them, the stress of modern work is affecting Canadians in a lot of ways and across industries.

This week, CBC News and The National take a look at the forces behind this stress and the ways we can avoid burning out. We'll examine new approaches to productivity and creativity, how we structure shift work, the mental health effects of telecommuting and what Canada can learn from other countries.

For more on our series "Burnout: Stress At Work," watch The National and read more at


Anand Ram

Senior Producer

Anand Ram is senior producer of the CBC's Health, Science and Climate units. He's worked as a reporter covering technology, business and the environment and as a producer with The National.