The Japanese government has announced it will adopt new guidelines in a bid to reduce the number of work-related suicides.
The country has the second-highest suicide rate in Asia after South Korea, with the term ‘karoshi’– which translates as ‘death by overwork’ – a recognised and devastating phenomenon.
Its declaration represents a shift from a previous approach that treated depression solely as a mental health issue.
The government is aiming to reduce the karoshi figures by 30 per cent over the next 10 years – from the current 18.5 suicides per 100,000 people, to 13 people per 100,000 by 2026.
“We need to focus more on what causes people to fall into depression. We need to think about the societal and economic factors,” said Yutaka Motohashi, director of the Japan Support Center for Suicide Countermeasures and the chair of the council that drafted the new guidelines.
The initiative has been pushed through in the wake of a number of high-profile cases of karoshi. In March, a 23-year-old construction worker who clocked up 200 hours of overtime in the space of a month, working on Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium, committed suicide. On Christmas Day 2015, 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi, who worked at the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu, also took her own life. In the month before she jumped to her death, she had worked more than 100 hours overtime.
Japan’s financial crisis of the 1990s led to a surge in people taking their own lives, and work and financial pressures remain a key trigger for suicide.
Hong Kong-based psychiatrist Dr Wong Chung Hin Willy has a number of Japanese clients and understands the pressures they face at work. One of his clients, a Hong Kong woman, works for a Japanese firm in Japan and sometimes misses her appointments because she can’t get away from the office.
“The Japanese are very hardworking: they work very long hours, even during the holidays,” said Dr Wong.
Although not as extreme as in Japan, Hong Kong workers also face pressure to work long hours. In comparison, the suicide rate in Hong Kong is 12.6 per 100,000 people.
“The working hours [in Hong Kong] are long compared to the situation in Europe or the US so work stress is very common,” said Dr Wong. He said the ability to cope “all depends on an individual’s resilience to stress”.
Aside from the long hours and volume of work, he said poor relationships in the workplace could also be a trigger for suicide.
“What is the relationship with your boss? What are your interpersonal relationships at work like? These are factors that need to be assessed,” said Dr Wong.
“There is not a lot of support for mental health issues in Hong Kong, it tends to be brushed under the carpet,” said Anna Healy Fenton, a counsellor at The Cabin in Hong Kong. “Asia is not alone in that, but it’s more extreme [than in the West]. It’s part of the success culture.”
In Singapore, the suicide rate has fallen from 10.27 people per 100,000 in 2012 to 8.43 this year, according to Samaritans of Singapore. The city-state has a comprehensive suicide prevention programme that offers support for at-risk groups and also operates in the workplace.
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