Wellbeing and Mental Health

What Japan's May blues tells us about tackling mental health 

Japan's May Blues phenomenon highlights the need for mental health and wellbeing initiatives.

Japan's May Blues phenomenon highlights the need for mental health and wellbeing initiatives. Image: Unsplash/Jason Ortega

Naoko Tochibayashi
Communications Lead, Japan, World Economic Forum
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  • 'May blues' is a Japanese phenomenon that occurs during the transition after the new fiscal year starts and a week-long nationwide holiday.
  • Fewer people appear to have suffered May blues during the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that having fewer interactions was helpful for many.
  • Mental health has since come under the spotlight, with initiatives benefitting Japanese society.

COVID-19 had a major impact on various aspects of life, and mental well-being is one of them. During the first year of the pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“One major explanation for the increase is the unprecedented stress caused by the social isolation resulting from the pandemic,” the WHO adds.

Meanwhile, studies reveal cases where social isolation made a relatively positive outcome in the short term.

But even before the pandemic, in Japan, mental and physical instability triggered by a change in environment, including at work, school, or a change of residence, has been given a term called “May blues”.

Why the 'May blues'?

Why May? Because the fiscal year in Japan starts in April with multiple transitions and is followed by a week-long holiday at the end of April. While a week-long break helps some refresh, it only makes it harder for others to return.

The beginning of May, therefore, becomes a time when people tend to fall into a state of depression and experience increased fatigue and an inability to concentrate.

Causes of May blues includes:

  • Difficulties adapting to new environments
  • Struggles to build new relationships
  • Strong sense of a gap between the ideal world and the reality
  • A loss of sight for the next goal, having been fixated on the new environment

Google searches for ‘May blues’ during the pandemic decreased by 80% compared to 2019, the year before COVID-19 hit – suggesting that fewer people needed to learn more about May blues or its solution.

Experts observe that fewer people were suffering from May blues due to the stay-home policy that was in effect during the pandemic, with fewer interpersonal interactions usually experienced in a new environment.

This is not to suggest that the pandemic played a role in solving May blues. As we progress from the pandemic, more in-person interactions are coming, and new relationships are being built. However, this reality may be difficult for those “saved” from the lack of interaction.

The Japanese government officially lifted the mask mandate on March 13. Two weeks after the mandate was lifted, 89.7% of people still wore masks in Tokyo station as they continued to adjust from years of "not having to disclose themselves fully".

Experts predict that as society opens up post-pandemic, more people may experience May blues as full disclosure of faces in April can lead to additional stress. This transition comes in addition to other changes that typically occur at the start of the fiscal year and in new schools and jobs.

How to prevent May blues

The doctors suggest routines that may help prevent the May blues, adding that they are also beneficial for a healthy mental state in general:

Relieve stress through conversation

Communicate with colleagues, peers, family and friends, as sharing problems helps relieve stress. Avoiding eating alone and spending more time relaxing are other forms of relieving stress.

Try to eat nutritiously balanced meals

Stay conscious of combining staple food, side dishes and main dishes. Irregular or unbalanced diets tend to cause nutritional deficiencies in the brain, especially in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that controls emotions. Serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan, which is abundant in animal protein.

Get a good night's sleep
Sleep plays a vital role in recovery from fatigue. Helpful habits for getting a good night's sleep include adjusting your daily rhythm of waking and going to bed, having dinner at least two hours before bedtime, taking a bath at least one hour before going to bed, and not watching TV or using technology like mobile phones and computers before going to bed.

Mental health initiatives

Mental health issues certainly do not just sneak up in May. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the number of work-related insurance claims for mental illnesses caused by work-related stress was 2,051 in 2020, a 35% increase from 2015.

Meanwhile, the domestic market for stress checks and mental health measures is expected to grow to JPY 28.8 billion ($214.7 million) by 2025 – approximately twice as much as it was in 2019 before the pandemic, according to research firm Fuji-Keizai.

Companies are also aware and are taking measures. Marui Group, a company that operates retail facilities, created a position for a Chief Wellbeing Officer in 2021, headed by physician Reiko Kojima, MD.

One of its projects includes the establishment of a resilience programme. The initiative aims to involve the management level to enhance the understanding of well-being and what it takes to improve physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Through quarterly seminars and presentations, senior managers will learn how to consider well-being as part of their management skills.

At Rakuten, under the leadership of Chief Wellbeing Officer Masatada Kobayashi, the Wellness Department is responsible for measures that support the physical and mental health of employees, including what gets served as cafeteria meals and maintaining a fitness gym.

The Employee Engagement Department is responsible for strengthening the psychological connection between employees and the organization by implementing measures to share optimism and promote diversity.

The Sustainability Department is responsible for social well-being, including disseminating environment, social and governance (ESG)-related information. “Without individual well-being, there is no organizational well-being. Without organizational well-being, there is no social well-being”, says Kobayashi.

Mental health costs rising

The cost of mental health conditions (and related consequences) is projected to rise to $6 trillion globally by 2030, from $2.5 trillion in 2010, according to a study published by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Building a support system – on both personal and societal levels – is critical for the benefit of everyone in Japan and beyond, with or without the pandemic or the May blues.

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