Labor Conditions and Problems in Japan

Labor Conditions and Problems in Japan Jobs

Long working hours increases the risk of mental and physical illness and death triggered by overworking. In Japan, long working hours is being corrected through reforms in work styles such as teleworking and telecommuting, which have become widespread in the height of the coronavirus infection (COVID-19).

However, the causes of long working hours and problems in the working environment in Japan have not disappeared. In this issue, we will introduce the actual situation and causes of long working hours, as well as measures to correct this said problem faced by many Japanese employees.

The Reality of Long Working Hours

Long working hours are the norm in many Japanese companies, and some may not question such a working environment.

The number of overtime hours spent in working is more than 80 hours per month which can totally cause one’s health to go on a downward slope and worst, the person’s cause of death. The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW) has issued a statement on appropriate working hours in terms of the possible risks of health-related problems. 

It points out that the risk of health problems increases slightly when overtime or holiday work exceeds to 45 hours per month. When overtime or holiday work exceeds 100 hours per month or an average of 80 hours over 2 to 6 months, the risk of brain and heart diseases rises considerably, according to the report, and serves as a guide to considering reasonable working hours.

Percentage of Workers in Japan Who Work Long Hours

Globally, Japan has a high percentage of workers who work for long hours. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s 2020 White Paper on Measures to Prevent Death from Overwork, etc. (Chapter 1.1), the percentage of Japanese workers who worked 49 or more hours per week was 18.3% (26.3% for men and 8.3% for women).

The figure of 18.3% of workers working more than 40 hours per week is the highest among developed countries such as the U.S., the U.K., France, and Germany, and one out of four Japanese men, in particular, work too many hours that is 49 hours or more a week.

Risks Posed by Long Working Hours

When long working hours becomes the norm, various risks arise. As the average monthly overtime workload is 80 hours, the long working hours can exhaust workers’ minds and bodies and increase the risk of getting sick.

If workers’ minds become exhausted, their motivation will decrease, and in the worst case, they may even choose to commit suicide.

The risk to the company is not only the loss of valuable human resources due to death from overwork, suicide, or illness. There are also financial risks such as compensation to the worker’s family and costs associated with acquiring and training new personnel.

Furthermore, if the reality of long working hours comes to light, the company’s image will be damaged, affecting transactions with other companies and the ability to secure human resources.

The percentage of suicides due to work-related problems is on the rise. The number of suicides in Japan exceeded 30,000 every year from 1998 to 2011, but since then, the number has been on a downward trend, reaching 20,169 in 2019.

Nevertheless, the proportion of suicide cases linked to work problems is on the rise, with 1,949 suicides in 2019, accounting for 9.7% of the total number of suicides. In addition, “work fatigue” accounted for about 30% (29.2%) of the estimated motives.

Although reforms in the way people work have promoted the correction of long working hours, overtime and holiday work have not been eliminated, indicating that many people are exhausted from working too much.

The number of workers’ compensation cases due to mental disorders is also on the rise. The number of cases of mental disorders caused by work-related stress and certified as workers’ compensation has been increasing in recent years. The main causes of work-related stress are interpersonal relationships and the quantity and quality of work closely related to long working hours.

In 2019, 509 cases of workers’ compensation for mental disorders were awarded; of the 509 cases, 28.1% (143 cases) of the mental disorders were caused by the quantity and quality of work. By way of comparison, the overall number of claims in 2019 amounted to 2,060, the highest number ever. 

While long working hours is not the sole cause of work stress, it is clear that an increasing number of workers are suffering from mental health problems due to repeated overtime, working on holidays, and working more than two weeks in a row.

Long working hours also has a negative impact on well-being. If long working hours is not corrected, access to paid leave and personal development and skill improvement will be put on the back burner. It will also deprive employees of opportunities to use their benefits.

While the enhancement of employee benefits is effective in improving retention and the working environment, unless the root causes of long working hours are eliminated, the benefits that have been spent so much money on will not be utilized.

Causes of Long Working Hours

Cause 1: [Organizational issues] Large workload and insufficient staff

The most common direct cause of increased working hours is an overload of work that cannot be handled within working hours. Many workplaces are understaffed for one reason or another, and the workload per worker is constantly increasing.

Prolonged workload overload can lead to mental and physical exhaustion of workers in that work environment, as well as to leave of absence or separation from the workforce.

Cause 2: [People problems] Insufficient management

Insufficient management, such as managers’ inability to grasp the workload and progress of their subordinates, is one of the main causes. If they fail to notice a particular team/subordinate who is working overtime or working on holidays, the situation becomes serious and the long working hours will continue until the subordinate speaks up. 

Another management deficiency is when managers are aware of the reality of long working hours but do not take appropriate measures. Workload tends to be concentrated on those who can do the work. This happens because some managers are aware of the reality of long working hours but do not take appropriate measures, due to their desire to leave the work to those who can do the work.

Cause 3: [Environmental problems] Large differences between busy and off-peak work periods

Industries with large differences between busy and off-peak periods also lead to excessive work. If staffing is based on the off-peak season, a large amount of work is performed by a small number of workers during the peak season.

It is inefficient for a company to have excess personnel, so this may be unavoidable. However, an environment with a large difference between busy and off-peak periods and a long busy season requires attention.

Cause 4: [Corporate culture issues] A corporate culture that encourages long working hours

Until now, it has been difficult for Japanese companies to “move horizontally” (career development through job transfers) across companies, and “vertical mobility” (career development through internal promotions), in which employees are promoted by seniority within a single company, has been the norm.

In Japan, where a cross-company labor market has not been established, promotions and salary increases are based on recognition of “hard work within the company. It is no exaggeration to say that evaluation based on “internal effort” created competition for promotion and pushed workers into excessive work.

The evaluation system is deeply connected to the corporate culture. If working longer than others becomes a kind of “in-house effort,” becomes an object of evaluation, and takes root as a code of conduct, it will become part of the corporate culture, and overtime work will become the norm in the workplace.

Cause 5: [Corporate culture problem] Too many unnecessary morning and evening assemblies, meetings, and meetings

In many cases, the working hours are lengthened due to wasteful activities such as morning meetings that have become a mere formality, evening meetings that are only for reporting, and meetings where nothing is decided but are held on a regular basis.

This, too, is rooted in the problem of corporate culture. A corporate culture that evaluates “internal hard work” of people who are loyal to the company and to the meetings, rather than the content of morning meetings and meetings, increases wasted time.

The more meetings and meetings that are wasted, the more materials are created for them, which exploits the time that could be spent on the original work. There are also meetings for the sake of meetings, which are completely unproductive. As a result, work cannot be completed within the stipulated working hours, and long working hours become the norm.