Working 24/7 was seen as the norm during the Japanese ‘economic bubble’ but after the bubble burst in 1990, Japanese employees’ productivity came under the spotlight. Some companies tried to introduce “waste free” working such as flex time, working from home, early starts and so on while other companies have tried a tougher approach by turning out the lights or fining people or insisting on being notified if overtime is to be done. Some companies play encouraging music like “There’s Always Tomorrow” (a hit pop song in the 1960s) at the end of the working day. No Overtime Days have become widespread.
Despite all this, average working hours have hardly fallen at all in Japan in the past 20 years. 2038 hours were worked on average by employees in Japan (excluding part time and short term contract workers) in 1995 and 2026 hours in 2015 according to government statistics. According to the OECD Japan’s average was 1745 in 2012, compared to 1407 in Germany, 1652 in the UK and 1778 in the USA. But I sense these figures do not reflect the large amount of unclaimed overtime that is done in Japan as a matter of course.
As the key to reviving Japan is improving productivity, the government has also take up various initiatives, such as this spring, when it announced it would raid any company where overtime exceeded 80 hours per month even for 1 employee.
Employees say they ignore the music, or if the lights go out- according to anonymous sources interviewed by the Nikkei Business magazine – they switch on their own personal desk lights or pretend to leave and then sneak back into the office.
As the Nikkei article says, the equation is not:
Overtime reduction = absolute reduction in work volume x more efficient working
Overtime reduction = absolute reduction in work volume x more efficient working x employees’ wish to go home
The third factor is the key point according to academic experts – Japanese have a relatively low interest in going home, so even if the company reduces their workload or promotes efficiency, overtime will not be reduced.
So why don’t Japanese want to go home? According to Nikkei Business there are 2 reasons.
- Doing overtime is a way to get promoted.
According to the research conducted by an independent economics institute into the work habits and careers of the employees of large manufacturer in Japan, there is a strong correlation between hours worked and the rate of promotion. For females, working more than 2300 hours a year resulted in a 5 times greater chance of being promoted than working 1800 hours a year. This is due to women who would have difficulties in working long hours being put in jobs where there is little chance of promotion, says University of Chicago’s Kazuo Yamaguchi.
The effect of working long hours has a less pronounced but still positive impact for men.
Whether it’s that you get promoted into jobs which require long hours or long hours that lead to promotion, it’s clear that in Japanese companies, if you do not work long hours you cannot get into the core group.
The current core group who are in their 50s and 60s remember the Bubble Era (the economic boom in Japan in the 1980s)when if you worked long hours you produced results, so they tend to evaluate well those employees beneath them who also work long hours, says Kengo Mochizuki, an employment lawyer.
Although studies show that working more than 50 hours a week reduces productivity and more than 63 hours or more begins to have a negative effect, “most Japanese employees don’t just care about their productivity but making sure they have created a niche for themselves. They think the way to do this is not to be productive, but to be seen to taking on a mountain of work.”
2. No fun at home
However there are plenty of employees who are not that bothered about being promoted or earning lots of money and yet still do overtime. This leads to the second reason – “even if I go home, there’s nothing fun to do”
The Nikkei tells of one employee who said he didn’t care if it was only him, but he would like his no overtime day not to be Wednesday. When asked why, he finally revealed that his wife’s employer also had No Overtime Wednesdays, so if he went home, then they would both be there, and it would feel awkward.
There are men who don’t want to do the housework, and overtime provided a free pass on this. Even women are using overtime as an excuse. One woman in her 30s said that even on no overtime days, she pretends she has to go drinking with colleagues or customers and comes home at her usual time.
But it’s not only married couples. The Nikkei Business magazine cites one 35 year old female employee at a printing machinery manufacturer. When she was in her 20s she went to English conversation classes and networking events but since she became 32 she has lost interest in self improvement and her friends are all disappearing with marriage and babies “and I feel tired, so just listlessly do overtime – it’s easier than having to think too hard”
Dormitory towns say that they find their family restaurants, pachinko parlours and saunas are all busier than ever before on Wednesdays, full with people who have nowhere to go on No Overtime days.
The Nikkei found one 52 year old in such a family restaurant in Kanagawa prefecture. He says on other days he usually leaves the office around 9pm. He is not very busy but he does overtime anyway. He does not go drinking with his colleagues as much as he used to. His boss is a younger guy so it feels awkward to go drinking with him.
He doesn’t feel welcome at home. He has teenage children but does not help with their upbringing. He stays out drinking and kills time by walking home. “I wish they would stop No Overtime days” he says many times.
Chain restaurants and Starbucks have started catering to these “No Overtime Day Refugees” by offering alcohol and snacks in the evenings. A “study café” has opened up where you can read, continue working or study and even bring your own food along from local convenience stores.
So what should employers do? Obviously, as the Nikkei advises, they need to break the link between overtime and promotion, perhaps even giving poor evaluations to people who put in large amounts of overtime, as an example to others.
But what to do about those who do not want to go home? They could just be left alone, to stay as long as they want, so long as they don’t claim overtime pay. But there is a compliance issue.
The Nikkei recommends that overtime has to be applied for and if “difficulties in being at home” comes up as a reason for doing overtime, then this should be seen as a mental health issue.
The former President of Triumph International Japan was so determined to eradicate overtime that he made any employee who did overtime not only report it but also attend a Hansei meeting the next day, to see how any further overtime working could be prevented. It soon became such a hassle for employees that most realised that it would be better to completely rethink their work/life balance and lifestyle so that they did not do any overtime at all.
As the Nikkei says, unless this harsh reality – that Japanese do not want to go home – is properly confronted, there is no hope of improving Japan’s productivity.