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LONDON — Stress seems to be the most common reason for absence from work. Stress at work is not a new phenomenon, but in the past it was often called something else, such as exhaustion. In the worst cases, it led to what was termed a nervous breakdown. Some of the tougher or macho bosses regarded such ailments as a sign of character weakness and would regard a note from the doctor ascribing sickness to “stress” as simple malingering. “Keep a stiff upper lip” or “pull yourself together” were the favorite rebukes to sufferers.

Now, fortunately, there is a wider recognition that stress is a phenomenon that needs to be dealt with sympathetically and humanely, not only for the health of the sufferer but also for efficiency at work. Someone who cannot concentrate as a result of stress will be a drag on any organization, but it would be a loss to dismiss or retire someone who has been trained, is experienced and still has potential. Yet there are too many organizations that fail to act with common sense and understanding to remove, or at least mitigate, the causes of stress in their workforce.

One cause of stress among employees is excessive working hours, which destroy family life and social relationships. Another cause is a bad working environment, but perhaps the most serious cause is bullying and unfair treatment at work.

An organization that invariably expects its staff to stay late or take work home is badly run. Either the organization needs to take on more staff, or it needs a radical rethink of the way work is being done. Questions need to be asked about sharing work loads and delegating tasks. An efficient organization should look carefully at why staff feel forced to stay late. Of course, in a crisis all staff should be prepared to work particularly hard, but there is something wrong with an organization permanently in a crisis.

A good boss will insist that staff keep reasonable hours most of the time and that they take their entitlements to leave. If employees don’t take the leave to which they are entitled, they are likely to get stale and become inefficient.

No one should ever be allowed to think that they are indispensable. In any company, especially where financial issues are involved, the taking of leave should be compulsory so that someone else can see whether all is in order.

In Japan and, increasingly, in the United States and Britain, employees often feel that if they go home early or take leave they will be regarded as laggards and will miss out on promotion. Companies need to ensure that such ambitions are kept in check. One way of doing this is to make it clear to staff in appraisal interviews that long hours are not a key to promotion. Indeed, they may suggest weakness that may make promotion more difficult.

In Japan, the phenomenon of dying from overwork (“karoshi”) has been quite widely reported. Overwork is liable to lead to family problems and often to drink. In this context I always warn Japanese executives to avoid wherever possible sending a man out to a new post unaccompanied (“tanshin-funin”), as the person concerned is liable to become a workaholic, take to drinking or pursue extra-marital sex (“uwaki”).

Marriages often go on the rocks as a result of spouses, usually men, becoming workaholics. The man concerned loses touch with the other partner and with the children. When eventually the worker has to retire, he has no interests other than watching TV and drinking. At this stage in life, the divorce rate increases. Moreover, the absence of working fathers may result not only in loss of contact with children, but also in children’s taking up bad habits such as drugs. Long hours may also mean fewer children. Japan’s net reproduction rate continues to fall at a time when Japan faces an aging and declining population.

Companies need to pay careful attention to environmental conditions. An office needs to have good ventilation and lighting with adequate space and ergonomically designed desks. Facilities such as toilets, drinking water and canteens need to be carefully planned — not merely to meet standards laid down by governments but also to ensure that staff are comfortable.

Unfortunately, even if there is no culture of excessive hours and offices are environmentally friendly, stress-related problems will surface. The vital need here is for good personal relations so that bullying by bosses of subordinates is avoided and a generally friendly atmosphere is established. Staff mistakes or slackness must be corrected, but there are good and bad ways of making corrections. Criticisms need to be worded with sensitivity.

A boss who never praises the work of his subordinates or always takes the credit for their work will be justifiably unpopular. Communication skills are essential for any good boss. Firmness is of course necessary, but even more important is kindness. No man or woman is ever perfect. His or her skills and experience need to be used and developed. The days of “hire and fire” are over. It may be necessary occasionally in the end to get rid of someone, but such final measures are usually costly and often a confirmation of weakness in the hirer and the firer.

The manager also needs to know his staff thoroughly so that he or she can get the best out of them. A good human relations manager is important in any organization, but ultimately the responsibility for managing staff lies with the section manager, who needs to recognize when and why an employee is becoming stressed.

We all need to “chill out” from time to time and get a good break from office politics. Stress is not a phenomenon that we can dismiss as imaginary or an attempt to malinger. It is real and can be damaging to efficiency as well as health and family.

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