As the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to surge in the Tokyo metropolitan area and other urban centers nationwide, a number of companies are now facing a new problem — what to do with employees who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and are looking to return to the office after recovering and completing their period of quarantine.

According to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor, nearly 240,000 people nationwide are believed to have recovered from the virus as of mid-January. The growing tally of COVID-19 survivors was enough for an article in Nikkei.com to suggest that it’s now common for people to know someone who has tested positive for the virus.

This certainly wasn’t the case last spring, a time in which people who had tested positive for virus and had been released from hospital care following their recovery were confronted by some pretty blatant examples of discrimination.

A man in Fukuoka told NHK he was forced to wait days with a high fever until a hospital agreed to treat him. Upon being released from the hospital, he was then barred from medical institutions in general because he was told that he couldn’t receive in-person advice or consultation after testing positive for the virus. He was also shunned by acquaintances.

“I thought to myself, ‘So this is how a coronavirus patient is treated,’” the man said. “My experience is probably one among many.”

The man added, however, that colleagues often understood his situation once he had shared his story.

“Discrimination is often rooted in anxiety about the unknown,” the man said. “People will be less worried once they have enough facts and knowledge at hand.”

Keeping this in mind, Japan’s corporate world is now introducing measures to share information about people who have tested positive for COVID-19 within companies, while, at the same time, protecting those who have contracted the virus.

The aforementioned Nikkei.com article warns that it is important to be considerate of an employee’s situation.

“Don’t ply these people with questions or treat them like criminals,” the article said. “Such behavior might be taken as an act of harassment.”

Of course, that’s perhaps easier said than done. According to an unnamed woman who works for a Tokyo-based company, she received a group email from her managers at the start of the new year that announced that an employee had tested positive. The message included the employee’s branch office and department, which created plenty of gossip and speculation when staff returned to work after the break.

“It was like they were out to catch a heinous criminal,” the woman said. “I shuddered to think what I would have done if it had been me. I don’t think I could have continued to work for the company.”

The Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry has released detailed guidelines for companies that are struggling to deal with new cases of infection among their employees, placing as much emphasis on those who have recovered as they do on implementing prevention measures.

“Do not let bullying and discrimination creep into the company,” the guidelines say. To this end, the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry encourages managers to keep an eye on social media to ensure that the infected person(s) and/or their families are not being harassed.

After 10 working days, the infected employee may return to work (preferably online) but the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry discourages companies from seeking “documented proof that they have tested negative, since this will be a burden on hospitals and other medical institutions.”

Above all, the organization says, “employees must understand that if they feel unwell, they should avoid coming to work or attending gatherings that involve eating and drinking.”

Old work habits die hard in corporate Japan. This time last year, it was perfectly acceptable for workers to shrug off whatever ailments they had in order to show up for work and go drinking with their colleagues and managers.

The Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry guidelines stress that managers should understand that employees are reluctant to take sick leave because they are afraid of giving their colleagues more work or don’t have any sick days to begin with.

The organization says that managers should create an environment that makes it easier for employees to ask for time off as well as introduce a system that ensures they can come back.

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