In the past, Japan's economy was supported by so-called "workaholic company employees," but with problems such as "death by overwork" coming to the forefront, even the government is proposing policies to limit overtime. As long working hours gain ever more attention, it is businesses that are wasting no time in implementing work-style reform.
Yokohama-based office furniture manufacturer Okamura Corp. is one such company. Beginning last December, every Wednesday when the clock strikes 6:30 p.m., all employee computers go black as part of no overtime day. If an employee has to continue working that day, they have to submit a request to the head of their department beforehand.
"Because you can only work until 6:30 p.m., I began to calculate backwards and think of the steps I needed to take to get my work done before then," said 33-year-old Yusuke Inoue, who is in charge of corporate sales at Okamura's Shinjuku branch in Tokyo. "My routine has definitely changed."
Under Okamura's labor regulations, employees work from 8:40 a.m. to 5:20 p.m., with those in factories working from 8 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. Leaving roughly an hour of flexible time, the computer black out is set for 6:30 p.m. in the office and 5:30 p.m. in the factories. Notices appear on the computer screen to warn users 10 and one minute before the set shutdown time.
"The number of people leaving work by 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays has increased by 20 to 30 percent," Masahiro Sekiguchi, assistant head of the human resources department, explained. "But even beyond that, there has been a significant change in employee awareness of how to actively manage their work."
Okamura Corp. is now not only approaching companies as a manufacturer, but also offering proposals to increase awareness about how to work with higher efficiency and productivity, such as shortening the length of meetings. Just this spring, the company's Shinjuku branch introduced an initiative to have the entire office leave early by having employees write the time they intend to leave in the evening on a card when they first come to the office in the morning and display it above their desk. Inoue, who is raising two young children with his wife who also works, was often unable to return home while his children were still awake before the policies went into place. But now, "Even on weekdays that aren't Wednesdays, times when I can go home early to have dinner with my family, take baths together with my kids or generally just spend time together has increased," he said.
As "work-life balance" becomes a key phrase, Okamura Corp. is trying to shift to a "work in life" ideology that positions work as one of many parts of one's life. Inoue acknowledges that the computer shutdown is only the first step in realizing this goal. Once the awareness of employees change, a uniform policy such as the blackout will no longer be needed, and the company imagines it can begin to adopt more flexible methods.
"If the idea of leaving early takes hold, I think we can move on to the next step," said Sekiguchi, as the company seeks even newer measures to reduce overtime.
The issues surrounding excessive working hours shocked the nation when a young hire at advertising giant Dentsu Inc. took her life after working an illegal amount of overtime, and a growing number of companies are scrambling to cut overtime hours to make sure such a tragedy doesn't happen again. However, even now, with cases like the reporter for public broadcaster NHK who died from overwork coming to light, it's clear that Japan is a long way from solving work-style problems.
The government outlined a Work Style Reform Action Plan in March this year, pointing out that working hours in Japan were long compared to those in EU countries, and that Japan should aim to cast away the "workaholic company employee" ideology of the past. In order to do that, the government plans to amend the Labor Standards Act to set limits on long working hours. In the proposed revisions, overtime is limited to a maximum of "45 hours per month and 360 hours per year" in principle, and set at "less than 100 hours per month and 720 hours or less per year" even during busy periods, with violations carrying penalties.
However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the House of Representatives at the beginning of the autumn extraordinary session, where he said work-style reform policy was to become the biggest topic. Furthermore, the submission of the proposed legislation to a special session of the Diet has been postponed, and is expected to be pushed back until next year's regular session. Rather than the government, it is forward-thinking companies that are leading the charge for reform.