Magazine article The Journal of Employee Assistance

EAP Response to Suicide in Japan

Magazine article The Journal of Employee Assistance

EAP Response to Suicide in Japan

Article excerpt

"In light of this situation, corporate clients have increasingly expected Japanese EA professionals to play an important role in managing corporate risk by reducing the negative impact of workplace stress."

Japan's first and foremost occupational mental health crisis is employee suicide, with more than 30,000 suicide deaths annually since 1998. Even more significant, suicide is the primary cause of death for those aged 20-39, and the second-highest cause of death for those aged 40-49, which are the core of Japan's working population (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2011).

Reasons for the high number of suicides include bank failures, corporate restructuring, and the long working hours and resulting stress-related disorders. In Japanese, the word "karoshi" literally means death by overwork.

Under current Japanese labor laws and recent Supreme Court decisions, employers are responsible for the impact on employees' health and mental health caused by occupational stressors such as long working hours (in excess of 80 hours overtime per month), workplace harassment or bullying, major change of job responsibilities or position, and traumatic events at work.

In light of this situation, corporate clients have increasingly expected Japanese EA professionals to play an important role in managing corporate risk by reducing the negative impact of workplace stress. There are four major aspects to workplace suicide in Japan of interest to EAPs:

1) The cultural context of suicide in Japan;

2) The legal context to corporate responsibility;

3) National policies; and

4) The role of EAPs in prevention and response.

The following sections examine each of these areas.

The Cultural Context of Suicide in Japan

As noted, karoshi is a contemporary expression to characterize Japanese salaried workers who killed themselves over depression from overwork without appropriate breaks or compensatory time off. In 2011, the average number of working hours for Japanese workers was the second-highest among major industrialized nations (Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, 2013).

When there are crucial tasks to complete, Japanese workers tend to sacrifice their leisure time, as well as limiting their eating and sleeping hours.

When a psychological autopsy is conducted after a suicide, the majority of cases exhibited signs of mental disorders, with depression being the most commonly identified. Yoshinori Cho interviewed survivors of suicide attempts, and he found that while these individuals were able to remember the moments just before the attempt, they were not able to recall the actual moment of harming themselves. Thus, experts such as Dr. Cho challenge the public's belief that suicide is a conscious and rational decision as a result of taking responsibility for one's own failure.

If one assumes there is no rational thinking during the suicidal event, then it stands to reason that additional suicide screenings and enhanced cooperation among institutions such as hospitals, police, local social welfare office, and EAPs shoidd reduce the rate of suicides.

Legal Context to Corporate Responsibility

In 2000, a Japanese Supreme Court's landmark judgment (the Oshima vs. Dentsu case) ruled in favor of the family members of an employee who committed suicide after working long hours. The Court's decision ruled that the employee's suicide was caused by depression due to exhaustion from overwork. The employer, Denstu, was ordered to pay 168,000,000 yen (approximately US $1.6 M) to the surviving family to compensate for Mr. Oshima's suicide.

This landmark court case led to increased corporate responsibility for a worker, as well as its level of compensation required in such circumstances. In 2012, 1,257 workers' claims were filed with the Labor Standard Office, seeking compensation due to work-related mental disorders. …

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