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Editorial: Workplace reforms should protect people's lives, health

There appears to be no end to suicides induced by overwork. The government, which is pursuing "working-style" reforms, should place priority on eliminating workplaces that sacrifice workers' health and lives.

The Mita Labor Standards Inspection Office in Tokyo recently recognized that the suicide late last year of an employee of major advertising agency Dentsu Inc. was job-related, as she became depressed due to a sharp increase in overtime work.

The employee joined the company in April 2015. Her monthly overtime had been about 40 hours during her probation period up to September that year. However, her overtime later increased by 2.5 times to approximately 105 hours a month, after which she reportedly suffered depression.

She told friends that she was mentally exhausted before killing herself, saying things like, "My body and mind are in tatters," "I can't sleep because I'm afraid tomorrow will come" and "It's already 4 a.m. My body is trembling. I'll die."

The woman's parents divorced when she was in junior high school. She wanted to make her mother's life easy, and she studied hard to enter the prestigious University of Tokyo and then joined Dentsu. Her tragedy occurred only eight months after she took up a job with the advertising giant.

In 1991, an employee who was in their second year with Dentsu committed suicide due to overwork. The company had initially refused to admit its responsibility for the suicide. However, the Supreme Court subsequently ruled in 2000 that companies have a responsibility to prevent employees' mental and physical health from being damaged by overwork. Following the ruling, Dentsu reconciled with the employee's bereaved family by paying compensation and offering an apology.

Nevertheless, the labor inspection office found that the woman in the latest case had been reprimanded by senior workers over the way she organized a drinking party at her workplace. One of her bosses repeatedly harassed her saying, "Your overtime work is just a waste for the company," according to the labor office. The company's responsibility for failing to rectify its corporate culture of forcing employees to work under harsh conditions is grave.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry compiled its first ever report on measures to prevent death from overwork earlier this month. The number of people confirmed to have died from overwork had stood at 160 in fiscal 2002 but declined to 96 in fiscal 2015. However, the number of overwork-induced suicides and attempted suicides has been increasing. The number of deaths and suicides as a result of overwork remain at around 200 a year.

In the past, there had been numerous cases where middle-aged and senior employees suddenly die of heart ailments as a result of long work hours, but a growing number of young employees have taken their own lives in recent years after being mentally distressed by overwork.

In response to the ministry's report on death from overwork, a professor at Musashino University recently posted an comment online, saying, "It's pathetic for someone to die only from working 100 hours overtime (a month)," and sparked protests, prompting the university to offer an apology. It is essential to eliminate the social trend of tolerating long work hours.

A law on the promotion of measures to prevent death from overwork, which clarifies the national government's responsibility, came into force two years ago. The central government, which is engaged in working-style reforms to rectify long work hours, should strictly deal with companies that drive newly hired employees who are in weaker positions into a corner.

The government should carry out working-style reforms in a way that will protect the lives and health of workers.

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