Between Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome
Part 2: The Devil Wears Prada and Karoshi
For the hostages, liberating themselves from this hostage situation — i.e. quitting or finding another job — is easier said than done. The reason is obvious. The "captor" practically controls the life line of the "hostages": much-needed paychecks to meet living expenses (food, mortgage/rent payments, health insurance, tuition, etc.). The stakes are high as the captor has the power to play the punishment/reward game as a leverage. Put up with the boss, and a worker may be rewarded with a raise or promotion. Otherwise, well, we all know the story. Job security plays another factor in this captor/hostage dynamic, because so much of our self-worth in this day and age is defined by our career and occupation. What we do is an integral part of who we are, and there is a strong instinct to preserve it. Hence for the sake of regular paychecks and self esteem, hostages in Corporate Stockholm Syndrome often have to put up with mistreatment, poor working conditions, verbal abuse, office bullying, even sexual harassment.
Instead of fighting for their release, hostages in Corporate Stockholm Syndrome typically display a tendency to become emotionally attached to the captor/company/employer by sacrificing their own emotional well-being, if not conscience. They may even rationalize that the employer’s poor treatment of them is necessary for the overall interest of the company in the long term. They may even angrily defend their employer’s actions when such actions are questioned by outsiders or third parties. Indeed the irrational bonding with the captors is basically a hostage's very strategy for survival. Shrewd employers are known to use sophisticated mind control techniques in the workplace — for example, social proof or herd instinct or peer pressure, and groupthink — to force workers' submission which, in turn, sustains Corporate Stockholm Syndrome.
Among the most extreme cases of Corporate Stockholm Syndrome is known in Japan as karoshi (back-translated from Japanese it means "death from overwork"). A document prepared by the International Labour Organization (ILO) contains the case of a snack food processing worker who once worked up to 110 hours a week — and there are only 168 hours per week! — and died at 34 from a heart attack. A bus driver logged more than 3,000 hours a year and did not have a day off in the last 15 days of his life, before dying at 37 from a stroke. A worker in a large printing company in Tokyo worked for 4,320 hours a year including overtime and died at 58 from a stroke. Even a healthcare professional is not immune: a 22-year-old nurse, died from a heart attack after 34 hours of continuous duty that she did five times within a month.
To their credit, a number of Japanese companies have been trying to improve work-life balance for their employees. Toyota, for example, now limits overtime to 360 hours per year (an average of 30 hours per month). At some offices, Toyota issues hourly appeals through the PA system after 7 p.m. pointing out "the importance of rest" and urging workers to go home. Nissan offers the option to telecommute for office workers to facilitate caring for children or elderly parents. Dozens of large corporations have also imposed "no overtime days", which require employees to get the heck out of the office promptly at 5:30 p.m. Company policy is one thing, however; workers' stubbornness and vulnerability to Corporate Stockholm Syndrome is another. Some workers opt to stay in the office with the lights off or simply take their work home by performing hidden overtime. Obviously the Japanese Corporate Stockholm Syndrome is more than just irrational bonding and sympathy towards the captor. It underlines the bizarre fact that hostages may even conspire with their captor!
In fact, Japanese workers who commit themselves to karoshi often blame themselves for the brutal working conditions they commit themselves to. They justify karoshi by attributing excessive overwork to their own (1) lack of skills, (2) lack of familiarity with the work, (3) lack of training as causes for their inability to complete work in a more timely fashion. Indeed in the Japanese culture, overtime is accepted as an integral part of work, and objection against it is rare, due to concern for negative reaction of co-workers, superiors, even family and friends. In the Japanese culture that stresses the importance of harmony and consensus, nothing is more important than how others perceive ourselves. This is another example when herd instinct, peer pressure and groupthink sustain Stockholm Syndrome.
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter