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Japanese firms hiring more people with mental health issues ahead of legal change

Kyodo

Companies in Japan are becoming more active in hiring people with mental health issues as they prepare for a legal change on employing people with disabilities that takes effect next spring.

Measures to assist such workers include setting up a support division with a licensed psychiatric social worker, providing paid leave for doctor’s visits and devising specific job manuals to avoid workflow disruptions in case of sudden absences.

People with mental health issues such as chronic depression and social adjustment disorder often have high ability, and many companies thus see them as qualified human resources.

Kazuaki Hagiwara has a schizophrenic condition but works as a back-office section chief at Transcosmos Inc., a Tokyo-based outsourcing service company in the information technology field. The section consists of workers with disabilities.

Hagiwara used to work as a systems engineer but developed mental health problems when he was in his 20s, working hard often on no sleep.

He started out by working part time at Transcosmos and became a regular worker this year.

“I hid my condition at the company where I worked before, but I feel at ease here as I have colleagues with similar problems and our bosses understand us,” he said, adding that he is seeking a higher managerial position.

Transcosmos has set up a system to look after workers with mental health issues. It hired a certified psychiatric social worker so those workers can get professional advice at work whenever needed.

At present, the company employs about 300 people with physical, intellectual and mental disabilities. About 70 of them have mental health issues.

“We want to continue hiring qualified people (with disabilities),” Executive Officer Hiroyuki Kohara said, while acknowledging there are obstacles.

Japan has a quota system for the employment of people with physical and intellectual disabilities, requiring a business with 50 or more employees to ensure that disabled workers account for at least 2 percent of the total. There are financial incentives for meeting the quota, while falling short draws a fine.

The law will change next April, with the required ratio rising to 2.2 percent and the scope of disabilities expanding to include mental health issues. People with a “mental disability certificate” and can stably manage their condition will be included.

In anticipation of the change, companies, including major ones, began increasing their hiring of people with mental health issues, many of whom show a strong desire to work.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 86,000 people with mental health issues registered at public job-placement offices nationwide in fiscal 2016. They constituted 40 percent of all job seekers with disabilities.

Employers, however, face difficulties after hiring people with mental health issues. Typical problems are that such workers tend to take time off frequently or quit entirely shortly after being hired. Their co-workers often do not know how to deal with such problems.

In an effort to encourage such workers to keep their jobs, Resorttrust Inc., a membership-based hotel chain operator in Nagoya, adopted new work rules last year.

Under the rules, such workers can take paid leave to visit doctors. There are also specific work manuals allowing them to share a job with others so a sudden absence does not disrupt the workflow. In addition, if they feel unwilling to speak directly with a superior, they can communicate with notes.

Central Helicopter Service Ltd. in Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture, has likewise introduced a new approach for workers with mental health issues. It created a short working-hours program as those workers tend not to be able to manage long shifts.

“I can work without forcing myself,” said a 29-year-old male worker who suffers from a schizophrenic condition. He works in the company’s quality assurance section.

“I used to be among those who have a biased view about this illness,” he said. “But now I want my colleagues to treat me as they treat others.”

According to Akina Noguchi, executive officer of LITALICO Inc., a Tokyo company supporting the education and employment of people with disabilities, there are three points to bear in mind for successfully hiring people with mental disorders.

These are providing a job that suits the person, providing work the person feels is rewarding, and giving proper consideration to the person’s condition.

Employers will see some good “spillover effects” from hiring people with mental problems, Noguchi said. “They will find an opportunity to review existing mental health management for all of their employees, as well as to review the entire work procedures in their offices.”