5 Tips for Tackling Stress in the Japanese Workplace

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Do you ever get stressed? When I say stressed, I don’t just mean “a bit angry” or “disgruntled,” I mean feeling uneasy to the point where it can affect your ability to sleep, work effectively and even to communicate with those around you.

I’ve had issues with stress in the past. And as much as I love Japan, the typical Japanese workplace — with the often passive-aggressive nature of interpersonal conflicts and the way in which people are basically conditioned to internalize their problems — is a really fertile breeding ground for stress and anxiety-related disorders.

And this won’t just leave you worn out. As research deepens, it’s becoming more and more obvious that stress can pose a serious threat to health.

It’s also a major contributor to Japan’s high suicide rates — a topic that’s tragically been all over the news in recent weeks following the ruling that a young female employee at ad firm Dentsu died due to karoshi, or overwork.  Last year, almost 10 percent of reported suicides were work-related, according to a labor ministry white paper quoted in an October 2016 Japan Times article. By March 2015, as reported by Reuters, claims for compensation for karoshi rose to an all-time high of 1,456.

So we know that workplace stress is a potential problem if you’re working in Japan. The question is: what can we do about it?

First of all, it’s important to realize that stress, like any other mental or emotional issue, afflicts different people in entirely different ways. As such, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Hopefully some of the pointers I offer here will prove useful if you are feeling so affected.

1) Identify exactly what is making you stressed

Sometimes when we are in a pressured or unfamiliar environment (and let’s face it, coming to work in a foreign country, especially one as unique as Japan, probably covers both points) it’s important to maintain perspective. Try to take a step back when you feel the stress and anxiety beginning to take hold and think about what exactly it is that’s causing it. Is it the workload? The cultural and language barriers? An especially uncooperative coworker? Harassment and bullying? Or is it something else entirely?

As any good doctor will tell you, a firm diagnosis is a vital first step to curing any ailment, so you need to clearly identify what exactly is making you stressed before you can face it down and deal with it.

2) Limit your stressors

A “stressor” is a person, factor or issue that is causing you stress. So, once you’ve completed step one and identified what your stressors are, then you need to try and limit the impact they have on you. For example, if somebody in the office gets on your nerves, try to reduce your interactions with them.

Additionally, if doing a certain type of work is causing you stress, perhaps it’s time to consider changing jobs. Even in the realm of English teaching in Japan, there are a variety of different roles you can perform. Do you function better in team teaching or a solo environment? Do you prefer the (almost) 9-to-5 of an ALT job or do you like the late nights and early morning lie-ins of an eikaiwa (English coversation school) gig. A change of scenery could go a long way not only to reducing your stress, but also shaking off the malaise that can often come from staying in the same place for too long.

3) Take regular breaks

OK, so we only get 10 guaranteed days of annual leave per year, and that isn’t all that much. However, Japan also has a plethora of national holidays and times when you may be able to grab a few extra days off such as the New Year holidays, Golden Week and obon (Festival of the Dead). Try combining these extra holidays with your own annual leave allowance to give yourself several three- or four-day breaks throughout the year.

For example, if you have a Monday that is a national holiday, by taking one day off on the preceding Friday or following Tuesday, provided you don’t work weekends, you are suddenly looking at a four-day break — but only using one day of your annual leave.

Taking holidays isn’t easy in Japan, so we really need to make the most of what time we have and be sure to get out of your local area on the weekend as much as you can.

4) Know that it’s ok to ask for help

I know that some of our colleagues can at times be driven by their own need to show everyone how strong they are and how well they can cope as part of Japan’s gaman (perseverance) culture, but that doesn’t mean we have to do the same.

Even Japanese employees are now, finally, beginning to wake up to the need to ask for help and recognize when they can’t handle something alone. There is no shame in doing so. Recently, a friend of mine who works for a prominent trading company in the Kansai area was promoted.

Her new role is to be a full-time counselor and support officer for any colleagues feeling depressed, stressed and in need of help.

This is a really encouraging step and I hope more of Japan’s larger firms will follow suit in the near future.

5) Know your limits

It’s only natural that when we come to a new country we want to impress our colleagues with our hard work, dedication and professionalism. But, as much as my inner child hates to admit it, I am not Superman — and neither are you. Don’t be afraid to slow down, to step back and to ask for additional help if you’re in a tight spot. In most cases, your company should be understanding and realize that a happy worker is more productive than a stressed-out one. And, for your information, there are unions that you can join that offer workplace protection and support.

Get help 

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article, the following resources can provide some assistance.

  • TELL Japan — One of the longest-running mental health support services geared to the international community in Japan. Services include free phone counseling, face-to-face evaluations and therapy, and community-wide programs.
  • International Mental Health Professionals Japan (IMHPJ) — An online database where you can search professional therapists in your area.
  • Tokyo Counseling Services — Provides a range of counseling and support services (based in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo).
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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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