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Why competitive productivity sometimes goes too far: a multilevel evolutionary model of “karoshi”

Andrew R. Timming (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia)

Cross Cultural & Strategic Management

ISSN: 2059-5794

Article publication date: 24 August 2020

Issue publication date: 20 January 2021




The aim of this paper is to outline an innovative multilevel conceptual model capable of explaining “karoshi” (death from overwork) and its relationship to molecular-, micro-, meso- and macro-competitive productivity (CP).


A theoretical model, grounded in the evolutionary biological, psychological, organizational and sociological literatures, is provided.


Karoshi is a function of molecular (genetic), micro (individual), meso (organizational) and macro (cultural) evolutionary forces. It is also demonstrated to be a function of time, geography, agri-climate and cultural and ethnic homogeneity.

Research limitations/implications

The analysis is purely theoretical and its theoretically informed hypotheses are not tested empirically. As such, further data-driven research is indicated. Additional analyses are also needed to further unpack the recursive nature of the relationship between karoshi and CP and the subtle differences between genetic evolution and cultural and organizational evolution.

Practical implications

Karoshi-related deaths are a public health epidemic and increasingly a major obstacle to sustainable CP. As such, organizations can leverage these analyses to help them implement interventions aimed at reducing incidents of work-related deaths, not only in Japan, but across the world.


This multilevel conceptual framework makes a unique contribution to the cross-cultural and strategic management literatures. More specifically, it constitutes a new and innovative contribution to one’s current understanding of CP by uniquely integrating biology, psychology, organization studies and cultural studies into one overarching model.



This paper forms part of a special section “Competitive productivity (CP): Advancing the competitiveness paradigm” guest edited by Chris Baumann, Michael Cherry, Wujin Chu, Lorne Cummings, Doris Viengkham, and Hume Winzar.The author thanks everyone at Cross Cultural and Strategic Management involved in the review of this manuscript for helpful suggestions. The author also wants to thank Yasuo Ihara, Takuya Takahashi, Yuri Nishikawa, Masahito Morita and Yudai Tokumasu for their helpful suggestions in the development of this paper.


Timming, A.R. (2021), "Why competitive productivity sometimes goes too far: a multilevel evolutionary model of “karoshi”", Cross Cultural & Strategic Management, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 96-107.



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