No. 1 workers’ stress, stigma jeopardizing motivation

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

About 30 percent of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant were suffering from the disorder called posttraumatic stress response when a survey was conducted in May and June 2011, according to a recently published study.

Slander and criticism over the accident contributed more to the mental stress of the workers than fear of radiation, the study by psychiatrists at the National Defense Medical College and Ehime University also showed.

The doctor warned that stress, anxiety and loss of motivation among the Tepco workers could eventually slow the work to contain the crisis.

“Even though they work hard bringing the crippled reactors under control, they have become the perpetrators, and the target of angry Japanese people,” said Jun Shigemura, a lecturer at the National Defense Medical College who coauthored the report with three other experts. The paper was published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Shigemura and Ehime University professor Takeshi Tanigawa, who also serves as the industrial physician at the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant, surveyed the mental health of 1,495 employees at both the No. 1 and No. 2 facilities during on-site visits in May and June last year.

Some are managers and others are engaged in the hands-on effort to contain the damage at the No. 1 plant. The survey did not include employees of Tepco’s subcontractors, who are believed to be laboring under harsher conditions.

Criticism of Tepco by the public and media has been escalating, and workers at the two Fukushima plants have fallen victim to blame and slurs, which override appreciation for their efforts, the experts’ report says.

Many Tepco workers, who used to be regarded as elite in rural areas due to their privileged compensation packages, now hide their identity to avoid discrimination.

Shigemura said the treatment is similar to what U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War underwent after returning home. “They are risking their lives for their country, but instead of appreciation, they get a backlash,” he said.

One worker he interviewed said a neighbor posted a note on his door that said, “Get out of my apartment.” Other workers confided to the psychiatrist that their children can’t tell their friends that their father works for Tepco in fear of being bullied.

Shigemura and 10 other psychiatrists and psychologists have been making monthly visits to the Fukushima plants to provide therapy and other treatment for Tepco employees.

The doctors warn that the discrimination and lack of appreciation are harming the workers’ productivity. Shigemura noted that many confessed they have almost zero work motivation.

“Such low motivation could result in slowing down the restoration process, which will take decades, and possibly trigger accidents,” he said.

Even though the experts said more help is needed, it’s hard to find local help because hospitals in nearby areas have been suffering from a shortage of doctors.