It’s hard to tell exactly how much of a universal constant the phenomenon of “sick leave anxiety” is, but both in Japan and my native England I felt a dire and existential dread every time I had to pick up the phone to call in sick. Even if I was hallucinating, losing vision, bleeding from every orifice: “Listen, I can still work! Put me in the game, coach!”
While companies in both my home country and Japan are legally required to give leeway when it comes to sick employees, actually taking that sick leave is another matter entirely. Even if your boss gives the go-ahead, there’s the knowledge that everyone else in your office will have to pick up your slack. There’s also the realization that if work is particularly tough that day, lack of morale might be blamed entirely on you. In a worst-case scenario, taking too much sick leave (even for a good reason) creates a fear that it might convince your superiors you’re not cut out to keep working there.
So the following story from Twitter user @mike_flaherty03 (yes, his account is named after the "Spin City" character) is particularly thought-provoking. “Mike”, as we’ll call him from here on out, works at a company with frequent international conferences conducted in English – and he’s candid about how he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, making those tough calls even tougher and seemingly more frequent.
In this thread, he reminisced about his first time telling his American boss that he would occasionally need to opt out due to sickness.
“When I first brought up the issue of my health with my American boss, I told him I might need to take days off from time to time to handle it. He immediately replied, 'Oh, you can just work from home on those days.'
I protested, 'But what about the others in the office? Won’t they think that’s unfair?'
My boss answered, 'Why would they? I think it’s much more unfair that someone should struggle in an environment where they’re incapable of working at full capacity.”'
It was as though the scales had dropped from my eyes, and I realized he was right.”
He clarified his statement in a follow-up tweet:
“Now, don’t get me wrong. The world of foreign-owned corporations is unforgivably cut-throat. Even if they make accommodations for you in your workplace, you must produce results – or else you wind up with a lower salary, and you can never rule out the possibility that you could be fired without warning. So please don’t presume those accommodations are a ‘soft option’ – I work every day with that stress hanging over me.”
One of the first replies to his comment, from Twitter user @fiore_eterno, brought up the story of an American acquaintance, who told them that “working healthily isn’t a privilege; it’s an obligation that workers owe it to themselves to respect” and therefore “it’s ethical to rest when sick”. Mike agreed, saying “it seems like a fundamental difference in how they think, compared to Japan.”
It’s no news that Japan has a critical overwork problem, with a 2016 survey citing overwork as a leading reason that 40 percent of Japanese people sleep six hours a night or less. While the government has attempted to curb the worst offenders with lights-out policies and even drones to monitor that employees will leave when expected, there is a definite cultural compulsion that drives the desire to stay back longer.
This is broadcasted loud and clear in @fiore_tereno’s second reply: “I think the root concept is different: In Japan, it’s more like ‘you owe it to your customers to be at peak performance’.”
Another comment highlighted it even more graphically:
“Foreigners really do approach this issue differently! Our whole attitude toward working is different, too. If you were to propose that around a Japanese company, you’d always be worried that someone might say 'Ah, getting special treatment are we?' and so no one does it. I think it’s more of a problem to yell 'Let’s all pull our weight together!' when the working conditions are bad, so it’s nice to see this perspective.”
There were numerous other voices of assent throughout the thread, with many users saying “your boss is right, for sure” or “it’s a shame you would never hear this from a Japanese boss”. Envy was also very present: it’s no wonder Mike had to post his second comment, with so many users clamoring for his boss to hire them instead.
It’s important to note that while this concept has many supporters in the thread, the reality is that Japan still has much work to do. As recently as 2017 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went on the record to state more aggressive work reforms to stop overtime (and presumably help workers use their sick leave responsibly), prompted by the karoshi death of journalist Miwa Sado. Only time will tell if this possible precedent set by foreign owned companies will take root. Until then, we’ll just have to wait and see what unorthodox methods Japanese bosses cook up to get their employees to stay home for a change.
Sources: Twitter/@mike_flaherty03 via Hachima Kikou, Reuters
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