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Preventing overwork via compulsory interval periods

Hoping to restrict long working hours and prevent overwork, the existence of working intervals -- whereby a specific number of hours must have passed in between employees' scheduled shifts -- is beginning to be seen in greater numbers.

    Such regulations have already been put into place in the European Union, while similar initiatives are increasingly appearing in Japan -- including one officially implemented last year by KDDI Corp., whereby employment regulations for union members stipulate that at least eight straight hours of time off must have elapsed between the end of one work shift and the beginning of the next.

    As a benchmark of health management, moreover, health and safety regulations for all company employees additionally stipulate that 11 hours of continuous rest should be taken.

    If a work shift ends at 2:00 a.m., for example, the next shift may not begin until 10:00 a.m., and -- from the standpoint of health management -- is not advised to start until 1:00 p.m.

    KDDI had previously stipulated that seven hours must have elapsed between the shifts for specific employees, such as those working in maintenance management. This has now been expanded, however, to apply to all of the company's 16,000 employees.

    Employees' computers record their working times, allowing both regular employees and their supervisors to determine whether the employees are overworking. If employees have worked for over 11 days in any given month whereby less than 11 hours have elapsed between their shifts, they are encouraged to take precautions and check the condition of their health.

    Before the new regulations were implemented, it was pointed out that it would be difficult to leave an interval of even eight hours in between employees' work shifts. The program began without difficulties, however, and the 20 to 30 people per month who were identified as needing to have their health checked ended up bringing to light overwork-related problems that had previously gone overlooked.

    Due to working adjustments that were implemented by the company, moreover, the total number of working hours has remained unchanged. Tatsuo Moteki , leader of the salary group in the company's human resources division, noted optimistically that "in addition to positive results seen in the area of health management, (the initiative) has also provided an opportunity for changing working styles -- raising the hope that work results may be seen in a shorter period of time."

    Other companies have additionally implemented similar intervals between work shifts -- including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which is requiring at least seven hours.

    On the workers' end, meanwhile, the Federation of Information and Communication Technology Service Workers of Japan (ICTJ) -- which has a total of 214,000 members -- has long been pressing for such changes to be made. During its spring wage negotiations in 2009, it stated its intention to "encourage negotiations between labor and management that aim to implement working interval regulations." Labor-management agreements were subsequently signed in this regard by 13 different labor unions.

    The organization went on to draw up guidelines in 2012 calling for greater implementation of the working interval regulations. A total of 21 labor unions have now signed agreements in this regard, but the total number of interval hours varies by company to anywhere from seven to 10 hours -- with no consensus reached on whether or not commuting time is included within the interval time period.

    The total amount of actual time worked in Japan is decreasing, moreover, but because the number of temporary workers with shorter working hours is on the rise, general workers toil for the range of 2,000 hours yearly for 20 years, which remains on the high end -- meaning that the issue of long working hours remains problematic.

    And because long working hours means a lack of sleep -- a continuing pattern of which in turn means that recovery from fatigue becomes more and more difficult -- it is necessary that workers receive the necessary amount of sleep every day.

    In EU countries, the interval time between work shifts is set at 11 hours. Because this is difficult to implement in Japan due to existing obstacles, however, the ICTJ has initially set the minimum interval time period at six hours. ICTJ policy department director Shinichi Kitano points out, however, "The need for a time interval regulation has not yet been fully understood, as numerous companies are counting upon the fact that employees will work off the books -- and workers themselves are saying they are afraid that overtime pay will be reduced."

    He adds that it is necessary to help increase understanding regarding the system -- including the fact that it will help increase productivity.

    Meanwhile, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan (JNIOSH) will conclude a three-year study next fiscal year regarding the connection between work shift intervals and recovery from fatigue. The study is a two-pronged effort that includes a month-long observation and a three-year follow-up inquiry.

    For the initial observation, an application has been developed whereby workers use a tablet to track their level of tiredness. Data will be collected this fiscal year among some 70 employees with daytime work in the communications industry, and among several dozens of people next fiscal year who are working in nighttime or rotating shifts. From this information, it will be determined what type of work interval regulations will be best suited toward the working conditions existing in Japan.

    JNIOSH researcher Tomohide Kubo explains, "It is a basic procedure to rest when you are tired, but we will need to determine whether or not it is better to change the number of interval hours depending upon whether work shifts occur at day or at night. We will also look at how to address the issue of recovering from exhaustion when people are working on their smartphones or personal computers even if they may not physically come into the office."

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