The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Brace yourself for everything to take a big hit. Speed, attention to detail, output, results—they are all about to fall off a cliff. No, this has nothing to do with currency rates, trade regulations, tariffs, gunboat diplomacy, or anything Donald Trump is about to do as US president. This is here in Japan—now—and mainly relevant to the major cities. This is when ¥750 billion is about to be taken out of domestic consumption, lowering the nation’s GDP by 0.6%.

Roughly one-third of your team in Tokyo is going to become a lot less productive, as they battle with the demon-pollen plague that hits every spring. Cherry blossom season has had the gloss taken off it substantially since the cedar pollen levels have risen to such grandiose heights.

Those pinkish-white buds herald the onset of a living hell. It is hard to concentrate when you are crying and your eyes are so itchy that you think you are going to go crazy. Just to offset these maladies, you can insert massive intermittent bouts of sneezing. The tissue box will get a hammering, and those tissues will start attacking the fine membrane under the nose—so that it hurts like blazes.

Those really suffering won’t even make it to the office, because going outside is a killer. This means less shopping and fewer beers in restaurants after work. It means masks, goggles, eye and nose drops, doctor visits, and keeping indoors as much as possible for months. The disruption to the workplace is real.

Tempers become shorter when people are irritated and in pain. They are less tolerant of others as they double down and focus on themselves and their woes. Cooperation is lessened somehow, as people are not so generous with their attention.

Anyone suffering from kafunsho (pollen allergy), who has a detail-oriented job, is going to make more mistakes. Others will take longer for tasks and rework frequency will go up. Those in creative industries are going to be less creative. Their rhythm is completely out of kilter and the concentration muscle has atrophied. Those in the sales army are struggling not to sneeze all over the client, and to keep it all together during the sales call. Sales technique and customer focus are AWOL.

How do bosses deal with this modern pollen plague? They usually carry on as if everything is as per normal. They expect the targets to be achieved, the logistics to keep working perfectly, and everything to carry on as if we were not under siege. On the other hand, during influenza outbreaks, people disappear for a whole week—one by one—as they infect each other. The workplace looks like a ghost town. A few hardy types keep it together, until the troops rally and return. Output is directly affected.

This is accepted, however, as a serious health issue, and bosses are understanding about the health ramifications, missed numbers, and targets. The difference with kafunsho is that it is the death of a thousand lashes. You don’t get to take a week off and recover. You don’t recover at all, because the symptoms stick around for months. You have to turn up, but only a shadow of your former self is actually there. It is time to accept that the months from February to May—up until around Golden Week—are going to be a disaster. This is a full quarter of a year we are talking about here—no small thing.

Statistically, kafunsho affects one in four Japanese, but the actual rate is much higher in the big cities, because of the toxic combination of pollen and pollution from cars. I would say one in three, a guesstimate based on my observation of what is happening every year in Tokyo.

The cedar and cypress pine trees are at peak maturity now, which is why you see heavy clouds of deadly yellow pollen on television, being whipped up by the wind. This is not going away anytime soon, so we have to adjust our expectations during these high-infection months.

So, bosses, be sympathetic with your team members who suffer. Adjust your production number estimates down during these months. Keep a sharp eye on accuracy levels for key parts of the business. If you are not a sufferer, become a fellow traveler. Be caring of those team members who are having it tough. Be fully genuine about it, because there is nothing more irritating than being patronized by someone who has no clue what you are going through. This is when the boss’s real commitment to the team is shown, on stage, for all to see. Let’s get it right this year!

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