On Tuesday, a postman burned himself to death after his superiors changed his delivery zone of the past 20 years. The previous day, a bus driver dozed off in the middle of a highway, killing two and injuring 16.
In reporting these accidents, the media focused on facts. And the most common reaction to the postman’s death was drenched in sarcasm. Readers said, “He must have been the best postman there ever was,” or “The postman went postal!” Responses to the bus driver struck a more callous tone: “The driver should be in jail,” and “He should lose everything he owns.”
As follow-up stories have shown, however, the postman killed himself in protest to the new mailing route he could hardly handle. The bus driver will also live with the guilt of killing two people. These tragedies have one theme in common: blue-collar Koreans are overstretched.
Both blue and white-collar workers are working physically and mentally taxing shifts with little outlets for relief. People are devoting hour after hour to work to either scrape by or to get increasingly elusive promotions in a hyper-competitive society.
Koreans are the second hardest-working people among OECD nations following Mexicans. Although the number of deaths attributed to overwork is unknown, the phenomenon is so common that a term was coined for it – “gwarosa,” which is equivalent to “karoshi” in Japanese.
Gwarosa refers to work stress-related deaths. According to the law, deaths from overworking are compensated by the companies responsible. However, because identifying causes of deaths not attributable to disease is difficult, numerous inexplicable deaths are often pinned to the fault of the individual.
A recent airing of “I Want to Know,” a popular TV series that investigates behind-the-scenes stories of the last few incidents, has raised controversy by saying Korea’s death classification system has no categories for deaths from overwork. Notably, suicides with implicit traces to work-related stress fly under the radar. Most are not compensated by responsible employers.
Statistics show the rate of suicide has risen steadily since 2009, with the rate of suicide by Korean men climbing steeply compared to those of women. Although the reasons for deaths are unknown in many cases, one possible cause could be that people were experiencing high levels of stress and did not have proper emotional or physical support.
|Source: Statistics Korea|
For one reason or another, there isn’t enough support to help hard-working men. So what to do with all this stress? It would make sense for males to seek help before contemplating ending their lives -- a scenario not possible in the Korean landscape.
In truth, seeking mental help services and medication for workplace stress in itself provides fertile grounds for discrimination. The mental health service system is geared against the mentally fatigued. Requesting medication under insurance lets employers track an individual’s medical records and use them against complainants.
If setting livable wages and working hours is currently an unattainable goal, there should at least be an interim solution set in place to help those struggling with too much work, such as non-discriminatory access to mental health services.
We live in a society where people are overworked to the point of mental breakdowns, and as in two recent cases, death. One can’t help but ask a question: when will this society come up with some measures, any measure, to help overworked and under-supported people?
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