The Japanese workforce combines long hours, suppressed feelings and internalised stress, causing hundreds of suicides and creating even more addicts and alcoholics each year. What can we learn from these tragedies?
If you are fortunate, you have a healthy balance in your life between fulfilling, productive work and social life. However, as many people are finding in this day and age, the balance between work time and leisure time can be challenging to master. One country where work stress occurs with great frequency is Japan, where, as recently reported in the Irish Times, overwork remains a mental health concern for many Japanese people.
Japanese workers are entitled to 18 days holiday per year, but the average taken is just 7 days. This is among the lowest amount of leave taken by any nationality. Furthermore, Japanese workers clock in for an average of 400 more hours per year than workers in Germany or France.
A tragic case illustrates this point. Mina Mori, in her mid-twenties, was fun-loving and cheerful, according to reports from her parents. Shortly after starting full-time employment in a fast food restaurant, she became unhappy, irritable, and depressed. She committed suicide in 2008 by jumping from a building.
In seeking to understand the cause of their daughter’s suicide, her parents found that in the month before her death she had worked 121 hours overtime. Those hours were in addition to her normal workload, and led her father to say that she had literally “worked to death.”
A similar case was the suicide in 2006 of 27-year-old Naoya Nishigaki, 27, a systems engineer. In his blog he actually identified occupational stress as the root cause.” I just feel irritated, exhausted, and disgusted. I try to suppress these feelings with medication, but I feel like my medication has become less and less effective lately. I’m so worried. What should I do?”
The Japanese language actually has a word for this phenomenon: karoshi – and the Japanese Labour Ministry keeps official records of Karoshi as a separate category. In 2010 close to 2000 cases were filed with the agency for compensation for occupation-related mental illness of which 171 were suicides. However, Japan’s national police agency believes that last year alone some 10,000 suicides were work-related. Suicide is ranked as the 13th highest cause of death among men and 21st among women.
And while many workers who feel the strain may not commit suicide, many do turn to alcohol and other drugs to cope. The notorious Japanese after-work drinking tradition is probably the best example.
Professor Glenn E. Good of the University of Missouri explains the issue in terms of Japanese culture as that of a man’s identity being solely tied to his work and how showing emotional vulnerability is practically taboo. “Suppressing feelings and internalizing stress are learned, male traits — traits that keep men from telling their bosses that they’re feeling overburdened or need help,” he says.
This type of mentality and the stress it places on an individual is one of the key reasons why addiction takes hold of functioning members of society. According to research conducted at the University of Hawaii, people who have high stress levels at work are more likely to have substance abuse disorders. In his article, Dr. Frone, PhD, explains how the qualities of work life itself can drive people to substance use. A combination of factors leads to alienation, including boredom, stress, interpersonal conflict, and lack of participation in decision making. Any of these factors, which come from the workplace, can lead to substance use.
The Cabin Chiang Mai offers residential treatment programmes for addiction. If you are concerned about addiction, contact one of our specialists today.