Stress can drive employees to do stupid things

TOKYO —

When talk turns to company scandals, we usually think of giant moneyed corporations corrupting governments and, metaphorically speaking, getting away with murder – breaking laws, trashing ethical standards, acting blind and deaf to the harm they do until caught and exposed, at which (in Japan at least) executives bow in shame before the cameras and impose pay cuts on themselves. Sometimes there will be a sacrificial resignation or two.

There’s another kind of scandal, increasingly prominent, says Spa! (May 13-20) –  typified by the deliberate food poisoning episodes that hit frozen foods maker Aqlifoods Co last fall: a lone, usually overworked and underpaid employee, stressed to the point of either striking out blindly and doing as much damage as possible or, if not that, of simply losing his or her reason and committing stupidities, to the employer’s cost, that would horrify the perpetrator in his or her normal state.

The Aqlifoods case, probably because it involved food, got more publicity than the other examples Spa! raises. A contract employee, whose take-home pay was a paltry 120,000 yen a month after eight years with the company, allegedly, out of revenge, laced company pizzas and croquettes with pesticide, causing thousands of consumers to fall ill.

It could be your company next, says Spa! It could be you next.

Consider these recent incidents:

Last September a 33-year-old JR Hokkaido driver hit the emergency brake by mistake. The train ground to a halt. How would he explain such a lapse? His mind went into overdrive. Seizing a hammer he smashed the brake, producing, in effect, evidence that the mechanism was damaged – so it wasn’t his fault, was it? The ploy was seen through.

Also in September, a driver for Yamato Transport loaded his truck with the wrong parcels. Fearing a dressing-down if he went back and admitted his mistake, he instead – what *could* he have been thinking? – flung the parcels into the sea.

In January a 24-year-old company employee was arrested in Osaka for, allegedly, spitting at little girls. Well, he was stressed. Stress needs a vent. What the stressed soul demands is not always socially acceptable.

One of two things: either society is crazy, or more and more individuals are. Stress seems the ultimate culprit, most of it economic – the stress of getting a job, keeping it and being worthy of it in a world where competition knows no bounds. Spa! lists three typical manifestations: depression, physical symptoms such as ulcers, and problem behavior. Until recently attention focused on the first two. Lately the third is coming to the fore.

Spa!’s thumbnail sketch of cerebral functions is no doubt simplistic but rings true. There are three brain levels – reason, emotion and reflex. Fatigue impairs first the first and then the second. The third and most primitive is the most fatigue-resistant. It remains manning the fort when the first two have retired.

You think, probably, scanning Spa!’s episodes, “I could never do anything like that!” You may not be right. A psychologist the magazine consults (who is not named, however) estimates 80 % of company employees are at risk of cracking under pressure in ways they might never have thought themselves capable.

Japan Today

  • 6

    gaijinheiwa

    In my opinion, this article could also be easily renamed "outdated Japanese work expectations" drive people crazy.

  • 3

    Tahoochi

    There was also that JTB employee recently that impersonated a student trying to commit suicide in order to cancel a bus trip in which he forgot to reserve the buses.

  • 4

    iLikeTurtles

    It seems like there's a serious blame culture in Japan - mistakes are always someone's fault and they must be reprimanded for them. The guy who loaded the wrong parcels probably knew - although it could have been an honest mistake - he would be severely punished for it, so why bother admitting responsibility? Might as well try and cover it up. It's the same reason there are so many hit & run accidents - guaranteed blame and punishment for the driver - might as well try and get away with it.

    Japan needs to get out of this mindset and tolerate mistakes at least to a certain threshold. To err is to be human...

  • 2

    Frungy

    ... in most cases the investigations are internal, and even when the police get involved the management has plenty of opportunities to quickly fabricate some evidence to frame a low-level employee rather than take the blame themselves. I am often suspicious when I see some of these cases, where an employee miraculously manages to single-handedly manages to poison or infect a very large percentage of a company's products... it makes me suspect that actually it wasn't a single employee, but rather some upper manager's decision to substitute an expensive component for a cheaper component for a dubious source.

    Even when a single employee really is responsible it is most often the result of years of abuse by management (often illegal), but the company escapes punishment while the employee is sent to prison.

    We wouldn't allow an individual to investigate themselves, but companies (legally individuals) are allowed to do so, and trusted to be honest... it is frankly ridiculous. Equality before the law is a joke when it comes to companies.

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