The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan recently released figures showing a 12% year on year rise in reported work-related illness claims.  In a third of these cases, employees were awarded compensation after claims of ‘power harassment’ or “dramatic and uncompensated rise in workload” were upheld.

Of course, instances of workplace harassment are not unique to Japan, but the specific phenomenon of “power harassment,” (essentially abuse of authority to make the lives of one’s subordinates miserable) has attracted significant attention there in recent years.  For many Japanese workers, an ordered hierarchy where the demands of superiors – reasonable or not – are unhesitatingly complied with, has always been the culture in which they have worked.   This stringent compliance in the daytime is what is said to lead the stereotypical salary-man to need to blow off steam with beer and karaoke at nighttime (which in itself may not bring great health benefits!).   But both workers and the Japanese state are now increasingly distinguishing between acceptable expressions of authority and unacceptable bullying and harassment with the potential to impact on workers’ health.

In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive found an estimated 1.1 million people in 2011/12 suffered from a work-related illness.  Lost manpower is obviously not good for any economy, but for a Japan teetering on the brink of a labour crisis, the issue is particularly acute.   A few years ago a survey conducted by the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union (JICHIRO) found that 21.9% of those questioned had experienced recent workplace bullying.  If even a small number of these reported incidents resulted in absences, it would lead to a significant, and crucially an avoidable, chunk of the Japanese workforce being out of action.

Where you have on average 1.1 jobs for every applicant, tackling factors that keep people out of the workplace is surely a no-brainer, even if for economic reasons alone.   Construction plans for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics are reportedly being hampered, for example, and airlines and restaurant chains are among businesses leaving expansion and other commercial ideas on the shelf due to shortage in labour supply.  Peach Aviation Ltd, a joint venture backed by Japan’s largest airline, ANA Holdings, announced at the start of the summer holiday season that it would have to cancel more than 2,000 flights this year, 16% of the planned total, due to “an unavoidable shortage of flight crew personnel”.

We looked recently on Worldview at how economic conditions are driving reform for women in the Japanese workplace, so will the same happen in relation to workplace health?   Already the Diet has enacted a law that requires the central government to take measures to prevent deaths resulting from overwork, including suicides.   Death from overwork (“Karoshi”) is at the extreme end of the scale – Japanese workers suffering from lesser forms of work-related ill-health may not take much comfort from the knowledge that if they die their employer will be penalised.   Reform of rules on overtime remains on the government agenda, but largely because there is a perceived need to encourage movement in the labour market and to address a long hours / low productivity culture, rather than because of a wish to increase worker protections.

So in the short term responsible employers must look after the welfare of their employees under their own steam if they want to keep them healthy and at work.  Enacting and applying policies that protect workers from harassment, overwork and unreasonable managers could go a long to help alleviate the labour shortage at both the national and company level.  Stopping the rise of work-place illnesses could be crucial in maintaining strength in the Japanese workforce and tackling the Labour Crunch.