Japanese depression contrasts the Western understanding of workplace mental health

frustrated young asian businessman

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.

Kevin Jones

3 thoughts on “Japanese depression contrasts the Western understanding of workplace mental health”

  1. Really interesting article Kevin, and its interesting to know that they have a particular word for workplace suicides. I’d agree that there is a tendency to not talk about workplace suicides in Australia (examples include the NSW ambulance inquiry). A lot of the information gets obscured underneath judgements of “work-relatedness”, the location of the suicide, and discussion of other potential contributing factors. I think it is quite clear that many organisations do not want to own their contribution to this problem. We have moved to wider discussions about mental health (in general), and to discussing people’s general mental health in the context of work (meaning promotions take place on-site). We’re still a long way from “owning” how work can affect mental health, and the work design changes that might require.

  2. Kevin,

    I like your article “Japanese depression contrasts the Western understanding of workplace mental health” but I have to disagree with you first sentence.

    “Australian workplace mental health advocates often seem to shy away from discussions of suicide, perhaps because suicides are not a regular occurrences at work or because work-related suicide remains stigmatised.”

    If you have listened to the news the last few days, the Defence Force have had 41 suicide this year, that is at least 5 a month. God only knows how many have tried to commit suicide and didn’t succeed.

    Being a current serving member of the Australian Army with 40 years experience in both the Regular and Reserve Army. I noticed the condition that our Vietnam Veterans where like when they returned. I now see it in the young diggers that return from the conflicts which we are currently involved in.

    It is about time that the Australian Government and the Public sit up and take notice of what is happening to our diggers. I know the culture is that the diggers will not say anything because of promotions and postings. This needs to be changed from the top down, if some of them read your article and take some points from the Japanese then things might change.

    You are right we need to bring Workplace Mental Health and Suicides to the front so we can protect people better. if we send some of our specialist over to Japan to see how they have dealt with suicides then we might have a chance of saving some lives.

    Thank you for a good article.

    1. Mitch, I have purposely kept away from writing about mental health in the military for several reasons. The major one is that, I believe, that the military has a unique culture and a unique command and control structure that does not correspond to the experience of most of the readers of this blog or the experience of most OHS professionals.

      There is some overlap with those civilian organisations that mirror the military hierarchy and control structures, such as police and emergency services. Importantly the issues you mention have also been reported in these sectors over several years and throughout Australia. Suicides, mental illness, post-traumatic stress, bullying, harassment and other work-related problems have been investigated repeatedly by auditors-general, safety regulators and government agencies.

      Changes and improvements have occurred as a result but one of the military values and cultural indicators is an approach to risk that is not the same as applied in non-military workplaces.

      I understand that there is considerable attention given to building individual resilience in military training. I am critical of resilience training in most circumstances but less so for the military as soldiers have far less control over many of the places in which they work and so individual resilience and teamwork are often the best hazard control options available.

      I am an advocate for OHS professionals to give more attention to work-related suicides and the social impacts and context. But I also try to apply OHS principles to this issue and the most difficult principle is to eliminate the risk or hazard. Soldiers can only eliminate the psychological risk by not joining the armed forces in the first place. The nature of the defence forces is that they face a level of risk that no one else faces and this unique requirement is addressed through gathering the best intelligence, having the best equipment and training for facing that risk and to train people to cope with that experience as much as they can. In effect, to do everything “as far as is reasonably practicable”.

      But even with all of this preparation and support, some soldiers return psychologically damaged. The post-incident support for these soldiers is vital and, from the recent media reports, seems to have been inadequate. This needs to improve.

      Thanks for taking me to task. There is an opportunity for a much longer and deeper discussion on this topic.

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