Outside street and metal joints view.

Live to Work or Work to Live

11 August 2015

“But what are the hours really like?” is a question that all trainees have been asked at some point, either by fresh faced law graduates sizing up the right firm for them, or by colleagues in other seats assessing their next move.

The answer usually: “they’re fine”. Of course there are always horror stories — people made to work for endless days on the run. And the City was shocked, though maybe not entirely surprised, by the death of Moritz Erhardt following a 72 hour shift at an investment bank a few years ago.

So, when discussing possible overseas seats with a friend recently I was surprised when he ruled out Japan on the basis that he believed he would be unable to handle the hours. As a fellow City worker it was not as if he was used to the 9 to 5 lifestyle. I therefore felt the topic called for further investigation. 

Overwork in Japan is a national problem. There is even a term "Karashi" meaning death by overwork. Last year it is estimated 200 Japanese workers succumbed to heart attacks, strokes or cerebral haemorrhaging due to their working patterns. There is an ingrained culture of working extremely long hours and failure to do this often invites accusations of disloyalty. Over a fifth of the workforce works over 49 hours per week and spending 14 hours a day at work with few or no holidays is not considered extreme.

Holidays, like leaving at 5pm, are frowned upon in many Japanese workplaces. While workers in the UK rely on that much revered Christmas break and obligatory week in the summer sun, many Japanese workers struggle to take their minimum annual leave of 10 days. The more cynical among us may view that as working for free. There is a growing practice of working overtime for free "sah-bee-soo-zayn-gyo" or "service overtime".

Countless studies have in fact shown that working extremely long hours decreases productivity. Working late may illustrate your commitment to the work force, but it does not necessarily mean you are contributing more. The concept of "face time" is something which many Japanese workers take seriously. So while you may not actually have anything to do at 11pm, just being there is very important.

However, times are changing and many workplaces are now making a conscious effort to promote a work life balance. While in some countries an email and a few well-judged seminars may be enough to make a dent in the practice, in Japan more extreme measures are being employed. For example the Ministry for Health is set to introduce a ban on working after 10pm after switching off the lights failed to encourage employees to leave.

Some businesses are looking to go even further. Fast Retailing, the manufacturers of Uniqlo clothing, are looking to introduce a four hour day for employees who want a better work life balance.

The Government is also looking to effect change via a new bill making it mandatory for workers to take at least five days holiday a year, and employers will also be responsible for ensuring that their employees take their holidays. The law encourages more flexible working and taking time to spend with children during school holidays.  

So while a stint in the Japanese office may not currently be hugely appealing, with change afoot City workers may begin to consider that job in Tokyo.