The Hidden Cost of the "New Economy": New-Type Depression   (October 17, 2012)

Two decades of economic stagnation and rising insecurity have unleashed work-based "new-type depression" in Japan.

Today I continue to explore the theme that Japan's two decades of economic stagnation may offer guidelines for what lies ahead "for the rest of us" as the global malaise deepens in the years ahead. I have been a student of Japan for 40 years, having studied the language, history, literature, geography and art/film, in university and thereafter. We have many Japanese friends and have visited a number of times. (I have also been a student of the Chinese and Korean cultures.)

Japan is quite different from the U.S. and Europe, with a homogeneous populace and a culture rooted in Confucian values and social hierarchies. Despite the many differences, including definitions of depression, I think it is self-evident that the rising insecurity and workplace changes in Japan result from long-term economic stagnation.

I suspect "new-type depression" may have some universal aspects, as rising insecurity and new demands in the workplace characterize Western economies as well.

New-type depression--NTD--(also called modern-type) is not a classic depression. It does not respond to anti-depressant medications, and it is triggered by events in the workplace--usually criticism from superiors. Those who exhibit the symptoms--difficulty focusing at work, physical symptoms of stress, etc.--tend to be in their 20s and 30s.

With 26% of companies reporting NTD in their workforces, it is widely viewed as a threat to Corporate Japan.

Outside of work, the person with new-type depression continues their social life as before, even as they find themselves unable to go back to work. In other words, they do not suffer from generalized anxiety or anhedonia (inability to enjoy anything in life).

This leads older Japanese to dismiss the NTDs as lazy or spoiled, because the depression is often triggered by demands at work the young worker cannot meet.

Psychologists in Japan are struggling to understand and define new-type depression. Some feel it is a form of rebellion against a rigid society. Others believe it results from poor communication skills on the part of both the younger workers and their senior supervisors.

Why are poor communication skill suddenly an issue in hierarchical Japan? It turns out that Corporate Japan has adopted Western-style management techniques to cope with declining sales and profitability. Job security is no longer absolute in Corporate Japan, and high-level social skills are now required in the "New Economy."

This is also the case in America, where routine work that required only following orders has declined in favor of work that demands constant communication with work groups and and interaction with supervisors. This "New Economy" workplace places a premium on high-level verbal, written and social skills of the sort that females generally score higher on than males.(NTD does not appear to be gender-related, as both males and females experience NTD.)

The "New Economy" in Japan and the U.S. places great pressure on those with poor communication skills and who take their work seriously. Criticism or a failure to keep up pushes the anxiety-ridden worker into new-style depression.

According to Japan’s case of the office blues (Financial Times, free registration required), Corporate Japan has also flattened management levels, U.S.-style, diminishing the traditional mentoring relationship between senior supervisors and junior workers.

This relationship evoked certain aspects of the stern and demanding father-figure, the boss who might yell at you but who looked out for you and nurtured you within the corporate hierarchy.

“It is a generation that faces a situation in which the balance between responsibility and authority is broken,” says Mr Imai. “Also, in the past, there used to be a senpai-kohai [older worker, younger worker] system, where more experienced staff mentored their subordinates, but now everyone is equal, so everyone is alone,” he says.

More than 26 per cent of businesses surveyed last year by the health ministry said they had cases of workers resigning or taking leave of more than one month for mental health reasons. This was up from just 7.6 per cent in a survey conducted three years before. The bulk of those businesses, or 84 per cent of respondents, said problems of mental health affected their business performance negatively.

We can summarize the breeding ground of new-type depression: very demanding work that is beyond the capacity of people with poor social and communication skills and those who fear being left behind or failing. Fearing failure, they wilt under criticism that seems unfair and irresponsible given that they're doing their best. Facing an apparently no-win situation at work, they quit or take an extended leave of absence.

This doesn't solve the depression or its causes, unfortunately. What seems to help is counseling that raises the emotional maturity of the person with NTD so they can better handle criticism, and counseling the senior supervisors to become better communicators with younger workers.

Placing workers with low communication skills in jobs where they can work independently and productively also helps.

The demands on enterprises and employees alike are rising as the "New Economy" of pervasive insecurity and constant adaptation become the norm. The take-away from Japan's new-style depression is that we need to understand not all workers are cut out for the high-social-skill "New Economy," though in the right positions they are admirably productive. That will take a new level of management skills in Corporate Japan, America and Europe as definancialization and deleveraging unravel the global economy.

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We are like passengers on the Titanic ten minutes after its fatal encounter with the iceberg: though our financial system seems unsinkable, its reliance on debt and financialization has already doomed it.

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