Karoshi, a Japanese term which when translated means ‘death due to overwork’’ was invented during the 1970s. Japan has been infamous for its toxic work culture. The history of Karoshi can be traced back to Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida’s promise and efforts to rebuild Japan’s economy. He made a pact with the large corporations in Japan to ensure lifelong job security for the country’s citizens. In return for this security, Japanese workers were expected to repay their employers with their loyalty.
The effort that Yoshida took 65 years ago has built Japan into one of the leading economies today. The Japanese employees started putting in additional efforts to profess their undying loyalty to impress their bosses. Japanese workers have been found to work overtime counting for at least 80 hours a month, out of which many of those hours were not even paid for. The Japanese labour environment has moulded in such a way that working 70 hours a week is seen to be “normal” and honourable. This enormous burden of stress soon resulted in death being reported from suicide, heart stroke, and sleep deprivation. The major medical causes of karoshi-deaths are heart attack and stroke, including subarachnoid haemorrhage (18.4%), cerebral haemorrhage (17.2%), cerebral thrombosis or infarction (6.8%), myocardial infarction (9.8%), heart failure (18.7%), and other causes (29.1%). The pressure continues to pervade and due to this, the number of irregular workers has risen from 10% in the 1990s to 40% in 2021. There are still some workers, culturally embedded, who work full time and find it difficult to quit. However, even with high working hours, Japan’s productivity rate is stooping low. Longer working hours has led to low spending and low fertility in the economy which has affected Japan’s GDP drastically.
What has been done in Japan? The 4-Day Work Week
Japan’s citizens have spent decades following societal norms that celebrate and idolise extreme work cultures. Even with the option to leave earlier on a Friday or take time off, people choose not to. They worry about facing backlash – from the company, their coworkers, and their peers. If Japan wants to build a professional culture that’s healthier, where its citizens do not prioritise their job over their wellbeing, they must take more deliberate and forceful measures.
The Japanese government has acknowledged the dangers of Karoshi and attempted to enact certain policies to counteract it. The Centre even introduced the concept of ‘premium Fridays’ where workers were given a chance to leave the office by 3 p.m. on the last Friday of each month. However, eight months into the programme, there hasn’t been much of an effect on work culture. People were seen to use that time to hit their sales targets and it only made them busier. Studies showed that not even 4% of employees left early. Additionally, they were asked to take vacations which were also not utilised. Unfortunately, none of the policies seemed to be working. Determined to preserve its working population from death by overwork, Japan, in June 2021, released annual economic policy guidelines, proposed that companies allow their employees to opt for a four day work week instead of five.
This move has been seen as a way to improve the productivity of the employees and their work-life balance. It encourages employees to take the extra day off to engage in leisurely activities or learn new things. People will have more time to take side jobs or enrol in classes to enhance their skills. An extra day off could also help in reviving demand and fertility in the country which would also help boost the economy. The Japanese government further said that a four-day working week would help companies retain experienced and capable staff who might otherwise have to quit their jobs to devote more time to family.
The impact of a 4-Day Work Week on Japanese Companies and their Employees?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been followed by the ‘Great Resignation’ where the world has seen a record-breaking 4 million people quitting their jobs due to overwork. Constantly being glued to the screens is mentally challenging in terms of stress, anxiety and productivity of the employees. The 4-day work week may seem like an unrealistic paradigm shift but it has been considered as a potential method during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep up with productivity and maintain employee morale and health.
Reductions in working hours have proved to be better for the employees as well as the companies in terms of better work-life balance, increased employee satisfaction, higher productivity, and reduced operating costs.
Long working hours deteriorate the concentration of individuals and eventually, they only work half as efficiently as they can. Moreover, reports from a survey conducted by The Workforce Institute suggest that many employees think they can do their jobs in five hours. If the employees are still asked to work for the designated time, the remaining hours are used by the employee to take social media breaks or coffee breaks. Both of these tasks result in a sharp decline in productivity. A study conducted in 2017 by a British discount shopping site, Vouchercloud, observed that on average employees were productive for 2 hours and 23 mins a day. However, when the working hours were reduced, the employees significantly reduced their time-wasting activities which thereby led to an increase in productivity.
An experiment conducted by Microsoft seems to provide evidence to substantiate the theory of increased productivity. Microsoft Japan had experimented in August 2019, under its new project, Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019, where it gave its entire workforce five Fridays off in a row without decreasing pay. Moreover, family vacations for employees were subsidised by up to ¥100,000 or $920. The results of the experiment were astonishing. It showed that with shortened weeks, employees took around 25% less time off, which increased productivity. The company reported a staggering productivity rate at about 40% with more efficient meetings.In terms of employee well-being, the Microsoft experiment found that by the end of the experiment employees were happier and more productive. Overall, 92% of the employees were elated with this trial. When 92% of employees reported being in favour of a shortened workweek, this shows us how much the workforce requires a 3-day break.
Despite such studies, companies and employers are apprehensive that an extra day off for the employees would be a hole in their pockets as they might incur huge costs eventually in terms of decreased productivity and increased operating cost. When organisations hire people, they spend an enormous amount in training the new employees which increases their costs. As a result, their primary desire is to retain their trained and experienced employees. Companies enacting a 32-hour workweek seems to be more desirable in a world where over 60% of Millennials and Gen Z are ready to take pay cuts to have a 4-day workweek. Hence, companies adapting to the demand of the new generation will have a better pool of applicants and will be able to retain their best employees. Older, more experienced employees that would have left to pursue other opportunities or care for their families would now be more likely to remain with such a company.
For the companies which have financial reservations, there is good news. A study was conducted on 500 British Business leaders by the Henley Business School at the University of Reading in England in 2019 on similar grounds. It was observed that there was an increase in productivity, fall in absenteeism and drop in the operating costs with total savings observed to be 92 billion pounds ($120 billion). The criterion about increasing operating costs also seems to be solved in the Microsoft experiment as the shortened week also helped the company to cut its electrical expenses to 23% with 59% fewer pages being printed.
By looking at these experiments, we can argue that the new generation is not ready to succumb to the age-old toxic work culture in Japan. It is high time that companies regulate their working conditions or lose out some of the best applicants in the process who might approach other workplaces that are ready to cater to their mental and emotional well being.
Though Japan has taken a noble initiative towards the mental well being of its employees, it is also prudent to note that a four-day workweek is merely an option that is being given to the employees. There have previously been many lucrative offers and policies like Premium Friday or employers giving mandatory paid leave vacations put in place but all in vain.
There exists a perpetual state of work pressure, stress, and anxiety – which is contrary to a healthy lifestyle. The tension is between employers who need productivity and profits, and employees who expect proper pay, time to pursue their hobbies, quality time with their families, and overall, a holistic lifestyle. In this case, as this article argues, a 4-day workweek could indeed help us to achieve the aforementioned balance. There have been many experiments and studies conducted to prove the same as discussed above at length. Having looked at the effects of a 4-day work week on companies and employees, the next article in the series will examine its effects on the larger economy to build a more holistic analysis.
Garima Agarwal is a 4th-year undergraduate student pursuing BBA.LLB (Hons.) from O.P Jindal Global University. Wynnona Fernandes is an undergraduate student at Ashoka University pursuing her degree in Political Science.