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Social Spotlight: Long working hours are hobbling Japan

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from right, speaks at a meeting of the Council for the Realization of Work Style Reform at his office on March 28, 2017. (Mainichi)

The government's "Realization of Work Style Reform" action plan was finalized in late March, and it states that overtime work in especially busy months should be kept under 100 hours. To put it another way, for a whole month, an employee could be spending every waking hour working while getting just enough sleep to stay alive. The upper limit on annual overtime was pegged at 720 hours, but this does not include coming in to work on days-off, so in reality, the policy allows 960 hours of overtime per year.

    Perhaps the government arrived at this unsatisfactory conclusion under pressure from Japan's business sector, which tends to view long hours at work as an essential ingredient for growth and development. However, is this really the case?

    During a lecture at a company in the construction industry, one member of the audience asked me in quite an aggressive tone, "At our company, we've maintained our sales by taking on late night orders and getting the job done by the next morning; what we call 'night raids and early morning attacks.' If we really implement this work-life balance thing you're talking about and we lose customers as a result, will you pay us compensation? The real world isn't so easy, you know."

    We get questions and comments like this thrown at us every day as we try to promote changes in how we work. My answer in this case was, "If the customers are really valuing you only for taking on 'night raids and early morning attacks,' then orders will cease coming in if you stop. But from what I see, clients choose your company because of its high technical skill. Don't you need to polish this skill even more to open up a big lead over your competitors to survive? Are you able to create conditions where every engineer can keep developing their skills?"

    After this, the company decided to reform their work style across the board. The result was not just a decline in growing overtime hours; profits jumped from 600 million yen to 4 billion yen.

    This company gets a lot of government contracts. While every major project requires a certain number of certified professionals, the company usually didn't have enough of these workers to take these contracts. As a result, it depended on taking small jobs that don't require certified experts for its sales. As small projects require as much paperwork as big ones, the office workload rose as the firm took on more of the small jobs. One hundred hours-plus of overtime per month had become the norm.

    However, when they started to reform their work style, the employees became able to set aside the time needed to study. More workers passed the necessary professional certification tests, and that in turn allowed the company to bid on projects requiring high skills, which have higher profit margins, while the ratio of finalized orders also rose overall. In the end, the company managed to rake in more profits on a smaller number of projects than before.

    In addition to the overtime cuts, the work environment also changed as it became unsurprising for men at the company to take child care leave. Also, as employee evaluations refocused on awarding those who could get a lot done in a short time, women also became more willing to seek promotion to managerial posts, among other changes.

    Yoshie Komuro

    Japan has the highest percentage of workers spending very long hours on the job among the Group of Seven nations, but it has the lowest productivity per hour of labor. Japan's business sector needs to let go of the idea that "long work hours are the way we win," and they should realize that "long work hours are the reason we're losing." (By Yoshie Komuro, president of Work-Life Balance Co. Ltd.)

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