Mental Illness and Workers’ Compensation: Eliminate Mindsets, Structures That Breed Workplace ‘Power Harassment’

Poor workplace conditions and problems with coworkers can cause mental health issues among employees — this situation cannot go unaddressed. The government and companies must make efforts to raise awareness of such issues and improve working environments.

The Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry has announced that a record-high 710 people — a rise of 81 on the previous year — were recognized as suffering from work-related depression or other mental disorders last fiscal year.

This trend is due to increasing awareness that workers’ compensation can be applied to work-related mental disorders, prompting application numbers to rise. This suggests that many problems have been quietly lurking in the background. Society must earnestly grapple with the current situation in which some people are feeling psychologically trapped due to work-related stress.

“Power harassment,” mostly by superiors, was the most commonly cited reason for green-lighting payouts, totaling 147 cases. Twelve of the people involved in these cases attempted suicide. Long working hours and excessive assignments also were flagged by complainants.

According to the ministry, power harassment is defined as a higher-level person inflicting suffering upon a subordinate, transcending the proper scope of the latter’s work.

In addition to physical assault — such as punching and kicking — power harassment also includes reprimanding workers in front of other employees in an intimidating manner, and persistently demanding details regarding romantic relationships.

Last year, it came to light that a company employee committed suicide after a superior belittled his sales performance at an official New Year’s party by creating a document that used homonymic kanji characters, writing “symptom” rather than “award certificate.”

Companies need to understand the actual situation in workplaces and the kind of conduct that constitutes power harassment. It is vital, too, to create an environment that does not tolerate distorted interpretations of guidance.

On some occasions, it may be difficult to distinguish between power harassment and appropriate instruction. However, those in positions of power should keep certain points in mind when providing guidance, such as focusing on specific matters and avoiding emotional outbursts.

It is hoped that firms will conduct in-house training and establish systems that allow employees to report harassment cases and receive counseling. When power harassment is detected, it is crucial to take strict measures to prevent a recurrence.

Companies also should consider having higher-ranking employees learn about anger-management techniques.

In some cases, small and midsize companies have experienced difficulties related to power harassment due to a lack of personnel with specialized knowledge. The government should provide firms with more support in this regard, including training.

Power harassment cases related to sexual orientation and gender identity have also come to light. Recently, a man who was “outed” by a superior without consent was recognized as being eligible for compensation.

Creating workplaces in which people can work with peace of mind can help motivate employees and lead to increased corporate productivity.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 19, 2023)