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Stress Busters

The mental health of workers has become a pressing issue for many Japanese firms. A revision to a law now requires managers to carry out regular checks of stress levels among employees and address any problems they find.

It is another management chore, but it also offers an opportunity for business services that purport to ease workplace tension.

One key challenge is to identify who is at risk. At one nursing care facility, workers are encouraged to speak into a smartphone as a test to see if they are feeling the strain.

They use a software app that measures stress levels. It's not what they say, but how they sound, to the app that analyzes the frequency and tone of voice to check a person's mental condition.

Personnel managers can read the results online and the app makers say it provides an objective perspective of workers' wellbeing.

"These days, many workers report to their bosses via e-mail. And telecommuters work from home. These working styles can rob managers of a chance to talk face-to-face. The smartphone app is an answer to such problems," explains Smartmedical's Takaaki Shimoji.

As nursing care providers struggle to find enough personnel, they hope stress-monitoring services may be one way to keep their staff happy - and on the payroll. "It's hard to read peoples' feelings. But if you can see the results like that, it's simple," says nursing home director Masahiko Okamoto.

A home building company uses another method to keep its workers happy. Every morning, office workers are greeted by calm music, and the sound of chirping birds.

The firm uses a background music service to ease stress in the workplace, with soothing tunes on playback throughout the day. Managers introduced the piped music after staff complained the office was too quiet.

"I can now work in a relaxed mood. It used to be frighteningly quiet, with the tapping of keyboards the only sound you could hear," says one employee.

When the work day comes to an end the popular theme song from the "Rocky" movie is the cue for everyone to go home. Many Japanese people still feel obliged to work overtime, but the end-of-day music makes it easier for employees to say good-bye.

The company says overtime claims have fallen 15 percent since it introduced the office soundtrack. "Healthy workers, both in body and mind, are the source of the company's vitality. It's very important for the company as a whole," says Mitsui Home's Manabu Sakano.

The soundtrack service is streamed by an audio cable company, USEN, that says it has received inquiries from more than 5,000 businesses. It offers 86 channels for business clients and the mellow themes include "improving concentration," "relaxation," and "refreshing workers' moods."

"We thought the service would be just right for companies having problems with workplace stress," says USEN president Kimimasa Tamura.

Health officials say at least 60 percent of Japan's workforce is facing heavy stress and anxiety. Creating a more relaxed work environment could be an important step in bringing that figure down.

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