Overwork suicide ruling

Editorial, Mainichi Shimbun, 25 March 2000

Ten years ago, the nation's largest advertising agency, Dentsu Inc., formulated what has been dubbed the 10 ruthless rules for its employees. One of them urges workers to stick with a project until their objective has been reached, even if they must put their lives on the line.

This kind of intense dedication to their jobs was a factor in the suicide of one its employees, ruled the Supreme Court on Friday. The court determined that Dentsu was liable for the suicide of a 24-year-old male worker in August 1991.

This is the first Supreme Court verdict on suicide from the strains of overwork, a phenomenon that has been rising sharply over the past several years. But that is not its only significance. On trial was much more than just one company's employment practices. Many companies seek the kind of selfless devotion that is advocated in the ruthless rules, compelling employees to put in long hours, often as an unpaid service. The verdict thus represents a warning bell to the excesses of an overworked society.

The Dentsu worker's death has since been followed by those of many others. Total suicides in 1998 jumped 35 percent from the preceding year to 32,863, a record high. Suicides attributed to work related problems have particularly been on the upswing, reaching 1,877.

There are no doubt personal differences in the level of stress that workers can handle, and this was one of the major points in the court case. The initial ruling by the Tokyo District Court awarded 120 million yen in damages to the worker's family. An appeal to the Tokyo High Court resulted in a 30 percent reduction in the compensation, with the verdict noting the victim also had a responsibility to take days off from work of his own volition.

The Supreme Court rejected this ruling and sent the case back to the Tokyo High Court, noting that employers are broadly liable for damages as long as the worker remained within the normal range of conduct. We think this is a fair decision.

Suicide related to overwork or stress on the job has hitherto not qualified for damages in civil lawsuits nor for compensation under the workers accident insurance program. But the Labor Ministry at long last adopted new guidelines in September last year to enable stress levels to be expressed objectively and to evaluate ties between work and mental health more broadly.

We hope that the new guidelines will alter situations in which workers are expected to put in unpaid overtime as a matter of course. The reality at private companies is hard to ascertain, but a survey conducted by the Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) two years ago revealed that overtime work has jumped considerably during the protracted recession.

With the advance of deregulation and overhaul of rules governing employment, work formats are undergoing a transformation. Beginning in April, many more white-collar workers will be evaluated and paid not on the basis of hours on the job but on the output produced. At companies that have already introduced this so-called discretionary labor system, many workers have found themselves having to put in even more hours than before.

A society that encourages competition is one where overwork tends to become rampant. Work-related stress is bound to rise, and mental health levels may decline. We must take heed of the Supreme Court decision and make efforts to alleviate stressful employment situations and prevent any further suicides from overwork.