Stress test to join annual health checks as mental problems rise in corporate Japan


Staff Writer

In light of the nationwide rise in mental health problems, the Industrial Safety and Health Law was revised last year to oblige companies to offer annual “stress checks” to employees starting Tuesday.

Here are some details on the impact the new test is expected have on companies and employees, what it involves, and the factors that led to its introduction.

Are work-related mental disorders on the rise?

Yes, worker compensation claims are on the rise.

In fiscal 2014, a record 1,456 people claimed compensation for poor mental health, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, up from 1,181 in fiscal 2010.

A health ministry questionnaire in 2013 found 10 percent of the 9,026 responding businesses said they had employees who had taken more than a month’s leave or quit because of poor mental health the previous year, up from 8.1 percent in 2012.

Although the national suicide rate has been declining since 2009, 2,323 of the 27,283 suicides reported in 2013 were blamed on work-related problems, the 2014 white paper on suicide prevention said. The number of work-related suicides, however, stayed relatively stable from 2007 to 2013.

What is the economic impact of mental disorders?

A study released in 2010 by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research said cases of suicide and depression caused about ¥2.7 trillion in economic losses for Japan in 2009.

In 2008, the Cabinet Office estimated that it would cost a company about ¥4.22 million to let an employee in his late 30s making about ¥6 million a year take a six-month leave of absence because of poor mental health.

What is the purpose of the test?

The primary aim is to minimize mental health problems in the workforce. It also is designed to help improve working environments, which in turn will presumably help prevent people from having breakdowns, according to the ministry.

“The government has at last put in place a necessary law to cope with the working environment, where stress abounds,” said Kazuo Koiwa, a certified social insurance labor consultant who is familiar with the test.

Koiwa said the mental health checkup will prompt companies to take care of employees’ mental health and help raise workers’ awareness of their psychological condition.

How does the checkup work?

Businesses with more than 50 employees will be required to offer the checks once a year, which means it will cover some 18,000 businesses and reportedly more than 20 million employees nationwide.

All employees, including part-timers, will be urged to take the test, although it is not mandatory.

Businesses will have the option of creating their own questionnaire covering three areas: causes of stress in the workplace, symptoms of stress, and personal relationships.

They will also have the option of using the questionnaire made by the health ministry, which has 57 questions covering the three areas.

For causes of stress in the workplace, the ministry’s test includes the question phraseology options: “I have an extremely large amount of work to do,” “My job requires a lot of physical work” and “The atmosphere in my workplace is friendly.” The test-takers response options will range from “very much so” and “moderately so” to “somewhat” and “not at all.”

On symptoms of stress, the ministry’s test phrases include: “I have been lively,” “I have felt exhausted” and “I have been unable to concentrate.” The answer options include: “almost never,” “sometimes,” “often” and “almost always.”

In the relationships section, one question asks how freely one can speak with superiors, colleagues, spouses and other family members.

How will employees learn of the test results?

The doctors or nurses who assess the tests will directly inform them. Since the medical professionals will be obliged to maintain confidentiality, they will be barred from notifying the test-takers’ employers of the results without formal consent.

If test-takers are assessed as under heavy stress, they can see a doctor at their request.

Based on the advice of the interviewing doctors, employers will be required to improve the situation, such as by reducing work hours or arranging transfers.

Are there any concerns about the tests?

Koiwa pointed out that the tests, which are not mandatory, won’t work if employees are reluctant to take them.

“Companies need to show positive attitudes toward creating better working environments, while encouraging employees to take the test,” Koiwa said.

A recent survey has shown that companies are being slow in preparing for the annual test.

The survey by job information provider en-Japan Inc. in October said 49 percent of the 231 responding firms said they are getting ready to introduce the tests, 33 percent remain unprepared, and 5 percent have no plans for preparations.

Of the companies preparing to introduce the tests, 36 percent expected the checkup to have little effect.

An advertising and publishing industry source said companies expect to gain little from the tests in comparison with costs of introducing them, adding there might be other ways of safeguarding employees’ mental health.

An official at a manufacturer said they are not yet sure how the results of the tests will be of use.

  • Hendrix

    If ever there was a country that needed a shakeup to its mental health care system then it’s Japan, this is where mental illness is swept under the carpet and just not dealt with… if someone has an issue with mental illness then Japan has no real compassion and very few people will lend an ear, i have seem this on quite a few occassions with people i have known who just couldnt handle things anymore.

    The whole place is a recipe for disaster. Stoicism, fear of showing true fellings, the silly “Ganbatte” nonsense, incompetence of psychologists and a masochistic work culture where everone kills themselves working ( pretending to work) to save face. it all adds up to some serious mental issues and a country with a huge statistic for suicide.

  • Christina Tsuchida

    The thinking reflected in this article is out-of-date. A newer psychology is reported in the Tokyo Shinbun, morning edn., 2015/12/28 p.15, “Sutoresu kouteide chikara ni” [to strength by affirming stress]. This second art. does not go into extreme stress, but covers responses from many countries to questionnaires on normal folks stress. Positively affirming stress and deliberately evoking adrenalin is recommended to soup up one’s performance! While this is only a brief report, the idea is a good corrective for the negative thinking of old-fashioned views on stress management.
    I think one needs to be concerned for those who secrete adrenalin excessively till it has no good effect. Yet these are rare.
    Meanwhile, for most people, more positive attitudes toward stress are in order.