Killing overtime: the life or death matter of overwork

Photo: hiroo yamagata/CC BY-SA 2.0

Overwork is dragging down productivity across Asia as disengaged and distressed employees sacrifice family and social time to show face in the office. Governments in Japan and Singapore must confront these challenges.

 By Holly Reeves

“When you spend 20 hours a day at the office you no longer understand what you are living for and cannot help but laugh,” tweeted Matsuri Takahashi. That was just before she killed herself.

Across Asia, death and breakdown due to overwork (known in Japan as karoshi) are hitting productivity and dragging down the birth rate. Japan has always been the classic example, and in 2015 2,159 people took their own lives under the influence of work-related problems, a phenomenon known as karojisatsu. This is down from the previous period, but the problem is spreading –  Singapore and India suffer too.

So what drives Japan’s workers, in particular, to the depths of despair? Matsuri jumped from the third floor of a university building on Christmas Day having taken on a job at Dentsu, a Japanese advertising agency which has since been raided by investigators from the Labour Ministry. Overtime. Deadlines. Inflexibility. The desire to not let the team down. All these factors play a part in this futile loss of human life.

More hours, more productivity?

The economies of both Japan and Singapore do not benefit from this frantic commitment to work. Singapore is a regional economic giant, but its workers are so disengaged and unproductive that it costs the country USD$6 billion per year. Japan is one of the least productive countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development index.

Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has sworn to tackle the country’s working culture within a year saying the changes are the third part of his “Abenomics” plan. He explained, “Reform of working practices is a pillar of structural reform” and “it is important to move ahead quickly.” A Cabinet minister is already working on a new law to tackle both working hours and practices, as well as push away from the trend towards temporary, irregular employment.

Article 36 of Japan’s labour code, which leaves overtime arrangements in the hands of employers, despite the 2014 Labour Standards Law which sets working days to eight hours a day and 40 hour weeks will need to be revised. “The law does not prevent companies from working employees beyond reasonable limits,” said Emiko Teranishi, head of the support group, Families Dealing with Karoshi. “The unions are also responsible because they accept these conditions,” he adds.

The government conducted its first ever government report into the scale of karoshi to look into the problem, and the results are difficult to read. A quarter of the companies that replied said employees worked over 80 hours of overtime a month. Half as many again reported staff doing over 100 extra hours.

Missing faces in the family

In Singapore, many people take on a working week of at least 48 hours, with millennials averaging slightly longer and often having two jobs. This is despite a widely-ignored government policy which states the maximum required work hours are 44. This means about 50% of Singaporeans told a recent survey they do not spend sufficient quality time with their family. These people still ranked family highly among their priorities, and 92% listed it in the top three.

This goes some way to explaining declining birth rates in both nations. Male partners are absent from home – and women are reluctant to carry the burden of child-rearing alone. Precarious employment and concerns over the future are also highly relevant.

For example, Singapore has provisions to promote marriage and boost new families, such as paid paternity and maternity leave, but the high cost of living remains a barrier. The problem is that employers demand “face time” and colleagues that work remotely or leave “early” are not valued. One local businessman, Tjin Lee, believes it is working culture itself that has to change, not just government policy, and has set up a co-working space where parents can work alongside childcare facilities.

“The truth is none of us wants to have children and not be able to spend time with them,” Lee says. “One thing [the government] could do is to incentivize or to compensate companies or to give them ways to help employees find a way to work from satellite locations that children can be near them.”

Prospects for reform

Back in Japan, a recent survey from Reuters found that just over half of the companies they spoke to were looking at changing working hours, but only 14% said they would reduce overall working time. Instead, their solutions are reducing, but not removing, overtime. Work done outside regular hours could also be limited. The new governor of Tokyo has led by example and has banned workers in her office from staying past 8pm. These are the types of simple but effective measures required. After all, Luxembourg recently topped an OECD ranking of the world’s most productive employees and its workers average just 29 hours a week.

Prime Ministers Abe and Lee face unique challenges. The Japanese leader will meet resistance for his reforms from the business community, and in fact workers themselves. Many national industries, such as social services or construction, already suffer recruitment gaps and will push for high overtime caps, or total exemptions, because vital work still needs to be done.

Prime Minister Lee does not need to work on policy but his country’s corporate mindset needs changing so that statutory limits on working hours are the norm. This should support his other reforms aimed at tackling sluggish growth. Both leaders will ultimately need to reach into their nations’ corporate culture and remove the idea that the honour of getting the job done is paramount. Nation first is family first. A successful future demands it.