More workers than ever before were approved for compensation for work-related mental illnesses in fiscal 2011, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. While those statistics offer hope of treatment for those suffering and are a clear recognition that workplaces are one of the causes of mental illness, the numbers of those approved remains quite low, only 325 out of 1,272 applications.

The most common reason for illness in the cases was a change in the nature or volume of the work. That may be particularly relevant as many firms downsize in the economic downturn while increasing the remaining employees’ workload. However, experiences with accidents and harassment, including bullying and assault, were also listed as causes.

No particular pattern in type of work was evident. Mental illness is fairly widespread across different types of workplaces as well as across different age groups.

The actual number of workplace-caused illnesses is very hard to determine, since “masked depression” and “functional depression,” which allow workers to continue their regular life on the outside, while suffering inside, are common in Japan.

Some researchers and psychologists have indicated that the “model” employee in Japan may also be the kind of person who is prone to depression. Many punctual, enthusiastic, hardworking and reliable employees may also suffer depression, anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses. Clearly, more than 325 people in Japan are suffering from workplace-related problems.

Though this year’s number of applicants was higher than ever, the total number does not begin to compare with the 30,000-plus yearly suicides that Japan has suffered for the past 14 years. A Cabinet Office survey earlier this year found that nearly one-quarter of Japanese adults had contemplated suicide.

Yet, last year, according to the report, just 66 suicides were recognized as work-related.

After the Supreme Court recognized the reality of overwork resulting in suicide, the recognition that workplaces can cause mental and physical illness leading to death — the potentially negative effect of work on humans — has taken on more legitimacy. However, most workplaces are far behind in doing enough to ensure they remain healthy in terms of psychological effects.

Firms need to take responsibility for overworked staff and should not force them into overtime. Reducing stress and unreasonable demands will benefit all employees. Better recognition of the degree to which work contributes to mental illness is a start.

However, the health ministry should seek to prevent such illness from starting in workplaces in the first place. Creating healthier workplaces in Japan is an urgent necessity.

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