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Japanese working culture has taken another victim

October 6th 2017 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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A 31 year old woman has died in Japan after working 159 hours of overtime in a single month. How does work-life balance become so skewed, and what are the Japanese doing about it?

When there’s a word to define ‘death from overwork’, as there is in Japan (karoshi), you know that you probably have an ingrained societal issue in play, and nothing brings this home like the news that a 31 year old Japanese journalist has been ruled to have died due to overwork, according to the country’s labour inspectors.

Miwa Sado worked on the politics desk at the public broadcaster NHK, and after taking just two days off in a month, she passed away due to heart failure in July 2013. Her family has now decided to bring her case to light in order to emphasise the destructive, tragic nature of Japan’s current working practices, stating that they “hope that the sorrow of a bereaved family will not be wasted.” Sadly, Sado is not the example of how punishingly long days, an expectation not to take annual leave and presenteeism over productivity have gravely hurt the Japanese workforce.

A government investigation into karoshi last year reported that more than 2000 workers had committed suicide due to work pressure, and that’s not factoring in other stress related death’s such as Sado’s. Almost 25 per cent of Japanese employees reported working over 80 hours of overtime a month as of last year, and in 2015, the average Japanese worker took just 8.8 holiday days. To underline this desperate lack of rest and recuperation, the Japanese also clock up the least amount of sleep of any nation in the world, sleeping on the whole just over six hours a night, with many workers surviving on much less than this.

The situation represents a work-life balance in crisis, and while the Japanese government has now capped overtime at 100 hours per month, with penalties issued to companies who force employees to work beyond this, I’m sure you’ll agree that even this level of additional work would push many of us to the brink. Initiatives encouraging workers to leave the office at 3pm on the final Friday of every month are encouraging, but seem like a drop in the ocean when you consider the extreme schedules that appear to be commonplace otherwise.

The consequences of overwork are unfortunately too grim to be solved by a ‘TFI Friday’ policy, but while work reform is slow, some private companies are forging ahead to make karoshi a thing of the past. Measures at some workplaces include turning all lights off at 10pm, encouraging workers to come in slightly earlier as opposed to working later into the night (and providing them with a free breakfast) and ensuring that all workers take at least five days of holiday every six months. Turning a gruelling working culture on its head won’t happen overnight, but the sooner that businesses realise that longer hours don’t lead to greater output, financial or otherwise, the better. If there was ever sign to leave the office on time today, this is it.

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