It's past time for Japan to tackle overwork

Tadashi Ishii, president of Japan's top advertising agency Dentsu Inc, bows during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo December 28, 2016. Picture taken December 28, 2016. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - It’s past time for Japan to tackle overwork. The 2015 suicide of a 24-year-old who had recently joined Dentsu prompted the advertising giant’s president to resign last week. The episode casts a fresh spotlight on the widespread problem of punishingly long hours.

For decades, workaholic Japan has struggled with “karoshi”, a depressingly specific word for death by overwork-related illness or suicide. Research suggests staff at nearly a quarter of Japanese companies work dangerously hard, clocking up more than 80 hours of overtime in a month.

Extra work is capped at 45 hours per month, but that can be waived by agreement between bosses and typically tame unions. To make things worse, firms often push staff to under-report hours, and employees frequently skip vacations. Job roles in Japan are often vaguely defined, and managers often struggle to measure effectiveness in terms other than hours put in, so work tends to expand to fill the time available.

For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, tackling counterproductive overwork is one plank in a wider push for structural reform. A “work style” task force is already drawing up an action plan. On working hours, it might suggest imposing more limits or at least stricter guidelines. Another worthwhile spur would be to prod listed companies into disclosing more about their workplace policies in reports.

Changing office culture can be difficult. Western investment banks underwent a similar bout of soul-searching about working juniors too hard, but anecdotally, many underlings are still grinding out the evenings and weekends.

There are grounds for optimism, though. In other areas Abe’s administration has shaken up the status quo. Public outcry helps, and Japan’s tight labour market gives workers a stronger hand. Meanwhile, companies seem to be waking up to the problem, with a recent Reuters poll finding a majority were reviewing working hours.

The benefits are worth fighting for. Wage-slaves tend to produce shoddy work after 14 hours at the office, so productivity would probably improve. More jobs could be created, helping broaden the workforce. And with more leisure time, people could spend more and have more children – both pressing economic issues. Work smarter, not harder.

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