The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

One important action a company can take to improve the health of its employees is to change its work-style culture. This is a complex endeavor—requiring cooperation and changes within management, staff, and even government policy—but it is critical if Japan is to support growth as the workforce ages and shrinks.

The first step is changing the culture of long working hours. A 2015 study by EYGM Ltd., Global Generations: A Global Study on Work-Life Challenges Across Generations, shows that those entering the Japanese workforce today want flexibility and work–life balance. Further, the top reasons employees leave a job are excessive overtime and the desire for greater balance in their life.

If work is eight hours and commute time more than one hour each way, the average worker has only two hours for recovery (e.g. time with friends and family, reading, personal email, mental downtime) once meals, preparation time, and sleep are factored in. So, working in excess of eight hours reduces recovery time or sleep, both of which are important to health.

Speaking of health, a study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and University College London showed that people who work more than 10 hours per day have a 60 percent higher risk of heart problems.

Based on a recent government study of karoshi (death from overwork), 22 percent of employees work more than 80 hours of overtime per month, highlighting the need to change the current work style.

To initiate reform, the government is encouraging companies to let employees leave at 3:00 p.m. on the last Friday of the month—the so-called Premium Friday—and is considering policies such as mandatory vacation, a white-collar exemption (which would eliminate overtime pay for skilled workers), or other overtime policies. These are important visible government actions, but the pervasive corporate culture that sees long hours as a sign of loyalty—and employees feeling that they have to stay in the office until the boss leaves—must change.

With the rapid advancement of technology, globalization of business, and preparations to host the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, corporate culture and individual mindsets in Japan are already changing. It is a good time for companies to define the corporate culture and work style needed to achieve their long-term business strategies.

Once the desired corporate culture is defined, a roadmap for change that includes leadership commitment, middle-manager ownership, and individual participation can be created. As companies are feeling the effect of the evolving workforce, changing their work style to attract and retain a new generation, as well as working mothers and those caring for elderly parents—and to support the overall physical and mental health of employees—is a heightened strategy. A new work style, enabled by technology, will help sustain a company’s business, and the company will benefit from a more diverse and productive workforce.


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Nancy Ngou is ACCJ treasurer and partner at Ernst & Young Advisory Co., Ltd. where she leads the Organizational Culture Transformation practice, helping companies with diversity, inclusion, globalization, and other culture transformations.