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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Fewer working hours should mean a lighter workload

Rika Kayama

Among patients visiting my counseling room are people who are suffering from overwork-induced depression. But recently I realized that their patterns have changed.

    While there are regular visits by patients who complain about things like, "I have lingering fatigue and feel depressed. I think it may be stemming from work stress," the factors and trends behind their symptoms are different now than before.

    Up until recently, whenever I asked patients with overwork-induced depression if they had much extra work, they would typically tell me they worked until around 10 p.m. every day and also worked on Saturdays and Sundays. So I would tell them, "Well, you work too much." However, recent conversations in my consultation room often go like this:

    "Do you work overtime and work on your days off?"

    "Rarely."

    It made me wonder why they can't get rid of their fatigue if they hardly work overtime.

    It made sense, however, after I listened to them well. For instance, a man working at a company's development section was told by his boss, "Our company is adopting 'working-style reforms' promoted by the government. Basically, overtime will be prohibited." Initially, the man appreciated the rule change, but he gradually felt distressed.

    The reason was because the workload for each employee remained the same. Workers now had to finish up their tasks much faster than before because they couldn't work after hours. "One time I caused trouble to my client because I couldn't finish my job until the delivery deadline. It was also a lot of stress to have to apologize to them for that." The man claimed that he would rather be allowed to work overtime if his workload doesn't change. His opinion was echoed by several other patients.

    Needless to say, the less overtime the better. But if overtime is to be banned, it is only natural for workers to want to have their workload adjusted in proportion to the reduced work hours.

    In the Tokyo area, a campaign to encourage workers to commute at different times in the morning was held. Commuting on packed trains is obviously stressful, and if people can find a comfortable way to commute by opting to go to work early or late, their work efficiency will increase and their physical and psychological stress will be reduced.

    But then I wonder if workers who are told to come into the office one hour later than usual may just end up finding piles of work waiting on their desks with no time for lunch breaks. We should find the best way to achieve working-style reforms that make everyone -- managers and workers -- happy. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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