Why you should care
Deaths from overworking may be down, but a dangerous long-hours labor culture persists.
By noon on Oct. 12, Japan was preparing for the arrival of Hagibis, the most powerful typhoon to hit the country in decades. Public transport had been halted and commercial flights grounded, while evacuation orders blared from mobile phones as the risk of floods, landslides and deadly winds mounted.
As the danger grew, social media catalogued the complaints of workers who had been forced by their employers to brave nature’s fury and turn up for work. Many of the businesses identified — coffee shops, estate agents, sushi restaurants — were not essential services.
But the testimonies rang true. Two weeks earlier, the government had published a white paper on Japan’s overwork crisis that suggested progress on eliminating one of the country’s most notorious workplace problems was slow. Still, as of numbers released by the government on Oct. 1 of this year:
In 2018, Japan’s total deaths from overwork fell to 158, the lowest in a decade.
The government warned that the level was still unacceptably high. Nineteen of the victims were in their 20s. Many of the deaths arose from long working hours and excessive workloads. Some 6.9 percent of the Japanese workforce worked for more than 60 hours in the final week of each month, traditionally companies’ busiest period, while job-related issues continue to rise as a proportion of Japan’s overall suicide rate, according to the government’s report.
Japanese workers, according to the OECD, sleep less than any of their counterparts among advanced economies, at an average of 442 minutes per 24 hours, compared with 528 minutes in the United States.
A 2017 health ministry survey found about half of Japanese people in their forties slept for less than six hours a night; a Rand Corporation analysis a year earlier concluded that Japan’s economy lost $138 billion a year because of lower productivity arising from lack of sleep.
Jun Kohyama, a neurologist at the Japanese Society of Sleep Research (JSSR), says that despite growing awareness of the dangers of lack of sleep, the problem is actually getting worse in some ways. Last year’s OECD survey showed Japanese people had an average of 21 minutes less sleep in 2018 than they did in 2014, despite what Kohyama calls a higher general level of concern about the problem. “Japanese people may have more awareness of sleep than before, but people tend to admire those who are devoted to work and press on without enough sleep. I am concerned that the situation hasn’t changed at all,” he says.
His comments come a year after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe passed his flagship “workstyle reform” legislation to address persistent overwork and other problems in Japan’s workplaces.
Across corporate Japan, companies are using their policies on daytime napping as a proxy for the broader message that they are serious about improving workplace conditions. Reina Hyakuya, a spokeswoman for IT services company NextBeat, describes a newly introduced company rule that entitles every employee to a 30-minute nap at any time during the working day. The company has introduced two “strategic” sleeping rooms and five “tactical” napping chairs. Still, labor groups and employment lawyers have serious doubts that a fundamental change in Japanese work culture is close at hand.
One of the main effects of the government’s high-profile focus on karoshi and workplace reform has been to trigger a national obsession with sleep deprivation and the conventions, habits and ill effects that surround it. Online retailer Amazon.co.jp, for example, lists more than 4,000 Japanese-language publications on the subject of sleep, of which 82 are about sleep deficit and 121 about quality of sleep.
There are thousands of more immediately practical solutions to a shortage of sleep on sale in Japan, especially ones designed to help the country’s overworked masses catch a few quality minutes of hirune, or afternoon naptime. Products range from high-tech desk pillows to miniature blackout tents that can be erected under a desk for those who need to stretch out.
But, says the JSSR’s Kohyama, the provision of napping facilities or the tolerance of mass siesta-taking may not be addressing the core problem. “If you crave a daytime nap, it means you don’t get enough sleep at night. It is not a bad idea for companies to promote daytime napping, but at the same time, [employees] should be allowed to leave work early. It doesn’t make sense if you take a nap but stay at work until very late at night,” he says.
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