The Supreme Court’s decision Friday upholding a lower court conclusion that an employer bore responsibility for its employee’s suicide is a stamp of approval on a ruling that has led to revisions of labor administration policies.
Advertising giant Dentsu Inc. was held liable for it’s 24-year-old employee’s suicide, which the court ruled was triggered by overwork. The landmark case has led the government to revise the criteria for granting compensation for work-related accidents.
The ruling’s history goes back to March 1996, when the Tokyo District Court recognized that the company had legal responsibility for Ichiro Oshima’s suicide.
Previously, the Worker’s Accident Compensation Insurance Law had effectively not recognized suicides or attempted suicides as work-related accidents, labeling them instead as “deliberate” accidents.
But the Tokyo District Court ruling on Oshima’s case led to an increase in the number of applicants for work-related accident compensation for suicides and attempted suicides considered to be derived from mental disorders or stress caused by overwork.
The ruling led the Labor Ministry to broaden its criteria for work-related accidents.
A Labor Ministry committee put forward a proposal in July to widen the interpretation of mental disorders that could lead to suicide. It said people whose normal mental state has been deeply affected by work-related stress should be eligible to receive the insurance.
In addition, the committee mapped out a stress evaluation chart, which is supposed to help judge the link between stress levels in the workplace and mental problems.
Following the proposal, the ministry in late August treated the November 1998 suicide of a scout for the Orix BlueWave baseball club as a work-related death and provided compensation.
The high-profile case effectively became the first in which compensation was granted under the revised criteria for the Worker’s Accident Compensation Insurance Law, which officially took effect in September.
Until fiscal 1998, work accident compensation had been awarded in only nine cases of suicide and attempted suicide since fiscal 1983, when the Labor Ministry began keeping statistics.
These nine cases, including Oshima’s case, were considered exceptional as there was evidence to prove the victims suffered depression resulting from work-related stress.
The ministry distributed the revised criteria to its labor standards inspection offices in each prefecture, which directly handle applications for compensation.
The criteria has reportedly helped speed up procedures to examine each application.
According to the ministry, as of December, 41 claims had been filed across the country since September for compensation for suicides believed to have been caused by work-related stress. So far, compensation has been granted in five cases.
One labor law expert, while welcoming the revisions, called for more attention to prevention. Tadashi Hanami, a professor emeritus at Sophia University, has called for measures to keep such suicides from happening in the first place.
Hanami, also director of the Japan Institute of Labor, said the problem of overwork at Japanese companies is not just the fault of management; it is part of the public mentality.
“During the years of rapid economic growth (in the 1960s), Japanese worked hard to pursue a better standard of living, but people did not enjoy spare time,” he said. “Although Japanese have become more affluent, this sentiment has remained in society.”
Overwork is still taken for granted, and Japanese workers often fail to exercise their right to use paid vacations or not to work overtime without payment, Hanami said.
“There still is an atmosphere in the workplace that if you take several days of vacation, your colleagues don’t really appreciate what you are doing,” he said.
But this way of thinking needs to be changed, he said.
” ‘Karoshi’ (death by overwork) is a tragedy, so that is why it is important for both the company and individual employees to cooperate to establish a working environment that protects people’s health, safety and lives,” said Hanami. “Otherwise there will be no end to disasters and casualties of this sort.”