Employers and the government are trying to tackle overwork
SANAE ABUTA is a manager at Panasonic, a giant electronics manufacturer, in Osaka. One day she may work from 9am to 5.45pm. On another she may take a break in the middle, to go to the bank or see a doctor. Or she will stay with her child in the morning and start at 11am. One day a week she works from home. “I appreciate the flexibility,” she says.
Ms Abuta’s schedule is unusual in Japan. Long office hours are seen a proxy for hard work, itself regarded as the cornerstone of Japan’s post-war economic boom. Companies offer to look after employees for life in return for a willingness to dedicate that life to the company, including “service” (ie, unpaid) overtime or moving house on demand. People hesitate to leave the office before their peers, and certainly before their boss. Some sleep at their desks. Convenience stores sell shirts for workers who have no time to go home and change. Death by overwork is so common—191 people in the year to March 2017—that there is a word for it (karoshi).
Employers and politicians want to make workplaces friendlier. In 2016 the government launched an annual report on karoshi and started to name and shame workplaces—which last year included Panasonic—that violate existing rules. The Diet (parliament) is debating a bill which would cap monthly overtime at 100 hours.
The government hopes that relaxing the work culture will boost productivity (where Japan underperforms the OECD, a club of rich nations) and maybe even combat deflation (it has pushed the idea of freeing workers at 3pm on some Fridays so they can go shopping). Businesses, for their part, are under pressure to attract employees, especially women, amid a severe labour shortage at home.
Some big names are changing their ways. An employee at the national broadcaster, NHK, notorious for all- nighters, says hours have got better and that bosses are nervous about overloading staff. Hitachi, a conglomerate, is leasing co- working spaces so workers don’t have to commute to the office from afar. Clerks at 7- Eleven’s convenience stores are getting flexible hours.
Yuka Sanui, who heads Panasonic’s efforts, admits that “change is slow”. Not many of Ms Abuta’s colleagues are taking advantage of the company’s schemes. In most places, few workers opt for holidays or child-care allowances. Shaking up Japan’s work culture requires deeper labour reforms, says Yumiko Murakami of the OECD. Paying for performance rather than seniority would be a start, by making employees less hesitant to leave oppressive firms and to seek out friendlier ones. In her previous life at an investment bank Ms Murakami toiled endless hours most days. “But I knew if I didn’t like it, I could go elsewhere.”