09 July 2009

STUDY - Power harassment plaguing Japanese workplaces more than ever before

Yoshiaki Otani, unemployed, now lives on disability and unemployment checks. (Mainichi)

Yoshiaki Otani, unemployed, now lives on disability and unemployment checks.

Power harassment, in which someone in a superior position takes advantage of their power to cause distress to others, is now rampant in the workplace in the form of bullying, pestering and persistent reprimands, amongst other behavior. It has even become a way for failing companies to drive employees to quit.

One out of every three people who consulted the Labor Standards Bureau in fiscal 2008 about being pressed to resign complained of emotional problems, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has found. Those citing harassment in the workplace as the cause of their emotional problems exceeded 30 percent, which was significantly higher than those who were affected emotionally by bankruptcy and other challenges. The statistics confirm that the large numbers of lay-offs that have resulted from the current economic slump have had major emotional impact on workers.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, of the consultations made by workers with prefectural labor bureaus in fiscal 2008, 22,433 cases were regarding "encouragement to resign," while 32,242 cases were concerning "bullying and harassment." Both figures were the highest they have ever been.

The Tokyo Labor Consultation Center investigated the causal relationship between such factors and "emotional problems," self-reported as insomnia, depression, and other symptoms. The study found that of 2,207 consultation cases regarding "forced resignation," 738 (33.4 percent) complained of emotional difficulties. Of 1,260 consultation cases regarding harassment from co-workers, 391 (31 percent) complained of deterioration of emotional health.

In cases concerning lay-offs, 5.9 percent complained of negative emotional impact, while the figure was 2.8 percent for cases concerning company bankruptcies. The highest rate at which emotional trauma was reported was for cases of sexual harassment in which employees are either transferred to a different position or fired depending on how they respond to a sexual proposition, at 40.2 percent.

"Lay-offs and bankruptcies resulting from the tight financial circumstances of one's employer is devastating enough, but being told by a company to which you believe you've contributed 'to resign voluntarily' when you're not in a good position of finding new employment is probably even more emotionally taxing," say officials at the center.

Take a look at the case of 52 year-old Yoshiaki Otani. He was chided by his boss, nearly 10 years his junior, that "this was why he was no good" when he found the way Otani had compiled some data on the computer unsatisfactory. Similar incidents took place all over last spring and summer. Every time, the office was cloaked in palpable tension.

As a section chief, Otani had had subordinates. Once, when he'd given an assignment to one of his assistants, the assistant consulted another superior about the task. Otani was then criticized for not having won over the trust of his own subordinates and forcing them to ask others for advice. It was suffocating. Otani wanted to ask why he had to be subjected to such treatment, but chose to swallow his words instead.

He had been hired by the company, a subsidiary of a major real estate firm with approximately 20 employees, as a temporary worker in 2006 with the promise of being accepted as a full-time employee in three years. Previously, he had worked at various places, including a Japanese trading company that primarily did business in Southeast Asia. He decided to change jobs when he was 49 years old so that he could secure a better pension for his retirement, and planned to work until the compulsory retirement age.

Not even a year into the job, however, relations between Otani and his superiors began to turn sour. He was reprimanded for tying back his hair, and once for dressing in a formal Filipino shirt. But he immediately changed his ways, and has no recollection of ever making any significant mistakes in his work.

Faced with suspicions that his company was waiting for him to resign, Otani began to lose sleep. Having lost his wife to illness eight years previously and alone in his house in Chiba, he was scared of the night. Flashbacks of his boss rebuking him woke him up at two or four every morning. Soon, he began to suffer from headaches everyday before work.

Otani applied for leave at the end of August and began a process of recuperation at home. The pin code for the company entrance was changed soon afterwards, and he was no longer able to come and go freely. He was diagnosed with reactive depression. Talking to a co-worker could agitate him and aggravate his condition, so he couldn't go without his mood stabilizing medication. He humbly asked himself if he could be at fault without realizing it. But he just couldn't come up with anything.

He received notification from the company that his contract would be terminated at the end of March. Through an outside labor union, he is currently seeking that the company acknowledge that harassment took place. He plans to live on disability and unemployment benefits for the next two years, and has given up on gaining reemployment. Meanwhile, the company refuses to comment, citing privacy reasons.

original Japanese story

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