Australian workplace mental health advocates often seem to shy away from discussions of suicide, perhaps because suicides are not a regular occurrence at work or because work-related suicide remains stigmatised. To better understand this overlap between suicide and mental health, and the working environment, it may be useful to look at the Japanese experience where work-related suicides, specifically karoshi, seems to have occurred before the appearance or recognition of mental ill-health and depression.
Recently the BBC released a series of broadcasts and podcasts looking at mental health issues. The first episode discussed “Depression in Japan”. The whole series Borders of Sanity will be of interest to mental health students and professionals but the Japanese episode reinforces that the recognition and treatment of depression is not the same around the world. The appearance of depression in Japan is a very recent occurrence and shows the links between mental health and culture, particularly as it relates to the role of work, our place in work and our relationships with our bosses.
Japan has a unique approach to work and the relationships within work. Some of the practices have been exported to other countries as we have seen in companies like Toyota but the perception of workload, diligence, commitment and loyalty has some echoes in Western workplaces.
Karoshi has been reported on in the West many times before, often as a peculiar quirk of the Orient but the recent BBC podcast is less about suicide and more about depression and mental health. The West has a long tradition of psychoanalysis where stress, anxiety and depression have been defined, refined and integrated into our cultures. This is still in its early stages in Japan and the full podcast is a fascinating counterpoint to the Western perception of workplace mental health.