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"Stressed Out In Japan"

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BCCJ ACUMEN E-Bulletin, October 2012

Have you ever stood on a train platform wondering why trains are sometimes delayed in Tokyo? With around 3 suicides an hour in Japan, it is a tragedy that so many are ending it all on the tracks. Depression and stress are two big drivers of both suicide and work related "psychological disturbances". The emotional costs to families are tremendous and things do not seem to be improving. Various groups have even calculated the financial cost1. In 2009, the economic loss from depression was calculated at over $30 billion, according to a Japan Health Ministry study2. That study also noted that 84% of companies reported mental health problems were affecting their business performance3. That is a big part of the economy!

What can we do to prevent depression worsening in our own organisations? There is an obvious linkage between the hours of overtime worked and stress accumulation, so trying to reverse a cultural proclivity of our staff to work long hours is a good starting point. Parkinson’s Law states that "work expands to fill the time". It sounds right at home here in Japan, as serious hours of low productivity keep the office tower lights burning late at night. Send them home!

Another issue was noted by Yasuji Imai, from the Mental Health Research Institute4.
Counter-intuitively, higher levels of "individual" as opposed to "group" responsibility is causing depression amongst those in their thirties.
Flat organisational structures and asking everyone to "do more, faster, better and with less" is stressing younger managers.

Of course, training younger managers to lead and manage is fine, but what about training them to deal with stress before it escalates into depression and worse? We haven’t advanced much in the last 100 years. Back then, if we had low levels of stress, we just persevered. If we became highly stressed, then we would become so ill we would be admitted to hospital. There was basically nothing available between these two conditions.
Today, we put up with low levels of stress and if we become highly stressed, we reach for the pharmaceuticals.
There is still not much available to us between these extremes.

Here are seven principles to self manage stress, before it escalates into something much more dark and severe.

Decide just how much anxiety a thing may be worth and refuse to give it more

There are things that make us anxious and we should worry, however we can limit the damage. Normally, we just keep worrying and it grows and grows and grows. Instead we can decide to place a clear limit on worrying about something and move on.

Use the law of averages to outlaw your worries

A good proportion of things we worry about are in the future and probably won’t happen. For example, if you were worried your child was going to fail University and never graduate, data would tell you that only a limited percentage of students fall into this category, so the chances of this actually happening are statistically small, so don’t get so stressed about it.

Expect ingratitude

If we expect that our colleagues or our staff will notice our hard work, loyalty and dedication and will appreciate us, we are setting ourselves up for a sad, sad outcome. Instead of stressing yourself with feeling upset about the unfairness of it all, make your starting point the fact that nobody could care less about you. They usually have enough of their own problems, without being interested in what is happening in your life. So if someone does actually uncharacteristically make mention of your efforts, treat it as a bonus, not an expectation!

Count your blessings – not your troubles

We are a greedy bunch. We are constantly looking for the next bauble, title, indulgence or whatever. We easily forget what we already have. A quick audit of all the good things we have right now here in Japan and a simple comparison with most of the rest of the planet, soon reinforces how lucky we are. Introduce some perspective to the things troubling you and life immediately looks different.

Rest before you get tired

Sounds simple doesn’t it and we can all do it, but we don’t! Go for a walk after lunch. Stop looking at your screen and go outside for a break. Don’t bring work home with you if you can avoid it. Get up off your chair often during the day, etc. Remember Parkinson’s Law - so manage time well, work hard, be efficient, be effective and leave the workplace at a reasonable hour. We need to differentiate between dedication and effectiveness. Taking a break might be the most effective use of your time, as it gives you the mental refreshment to operate at an even higher level.

Don’t worry about the past

Many of us are trapped in the past – we mentally re-run an indignity, incident, argument, or recent unpleasant experience. We bring it back, again and again and reignite our unhappiness or our anger. We allow the past to injure our today and steal our energy for tomorrow. Maybe we can’t completely eliminate doing this, but at least we can limit how much time we give to it.

Remind yourself of the exorbitant price you can pay for worry in terms of your health

In this century, we have very good information and know a lot about psychosomatic illnesses. Don’t become a statistic! I recommend you read Dale Carnegie’s classic, "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living". It might save your life.


  1. Yasuyuki Okumura, Teruhiko Higuchi, "Cost of depression among adults in Japan", Primary Care Companion Digest CNS Disorders , 2011
  2. Michiyo Nakamoto, "Japan’s case of the office blues", Financial Times, February 9, 2011
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
 
BCCJ ACUMEN E-Bulletin, October 2012
"Stressed Out In Japan" by Dr. Greg Story, President 
 
Read the article in Japanese.
「日本でのストレス」
 
 
 
 
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