Less work could be a lifesaver

Tired businessman sleeping at desk in office

The CEOs of Japan’s biggest companies are encouraging their staff to leave the office early to help ease the pressure of working life.

Once a month, employees will be invited to pack up work at three pm on Friday afternoon, leaving them free to travel, shop or spend time with their families.

The initiative, backed by the powerful Japanese business lobby the Keidanren, follows concern over the intense pressure to work long hours in Japan. This has been associated with death by overwork, or karoshi.

Last year, the head of one of Japan’s largest advertising companies, Dentsu, resigned following the suicide of a 24-year-old employee, which was blamed on overwork.

It is difficult to classify the exact cause of death by stressed employers, particularly if the fatality is linked to a stroke or a heart attack and suicides, such as that of the young Dentsu employee, rarely have one single cause.

Nevertheless, government figures show that 189 deaths were classified as karoshi last year. The media in Japan frequently estimate the actual number is much higher.

Japan has a culture where many people feel they should spend long hours in the office. Men are reluctant to leave before their superiors because they do not wish to appear lazy. In addition, socialising with colleagues after work is the common.

The hard-working, long hours culture started in the 1970s, when wages were relatively low and employees wanted to earn extra money. It continued through the boom years of the 1980s, when Japan’s economy was growing rapidly. Nowadays, people whose companies are affected by the economic slump hope long hours will lift their profits.

Foreigners who spend time inside Japanese offices are often struck by the relatively low productivity which seems to go along with these long hours.

“In a Japanese workplace, overtime work is always there. It’s almost as if it is part of scheduled working hours,” said Koji Morioka, an emeritus professor at Kansai University who is on a committee of experts advising the government on ways to combat karoshi. “It’s not forced by anyone, but workers feel it like it’s compulsory,” he told the Washington Post.

So, what of the initiative to convince workers to leave early once a month on Friday? It is not compulsory, so people are entitled to ignore the guidance. And there’s nothing to stop people trying to make up the hours by doing unpaid overtime on other days or at the weekend.

The criticism of the government’s plans on reducing overtime is that they are also guidelines and not strict laws. That is understandable, given the huge number of small businesses in Japan where it would be almost impossible to monitor people’s working hours. But the involvement of the Keidanren, which represents the big employers, suggests that managers realise that to get the best out of their staff, they need to offer them a rewarding work-life balance.[:]