Why does long working hours become a problem in Japan? -Part1

  July 21, 2023 [No. 111 – 2023]

FUJIMURA Hiroyuki, President
The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training


Why does long working hours become a problem in Japan? -Part1

In Japan, long working hours for regular employees have been a concern since around 1990. Long working hours can lead to sleep deprivation and increase the risk of brain and heart diseases as well as depression since the body does not have sufficient time to recover from fatigue. The Japanese government has implemented measures to prevent overwork-related deaths and suicides.

So why do some Japanese people end up working long hours? There are three possible reasons: (a) inadequate staffing in proportion to the workload, (b) a management approach emphasizing "not keeping the customers waiting," and (c) a work culture that demands higher levels of job completion. In the previous 111th issue of “Why does long working hours become a problem in Japan?”, two possible reasons, (a) and (b) were explained. In this second part, I introduce the third reason and conclude this theme.

(c) Actions that always strive for high quality

A certain level of high quality is required for the work. Even if 100 points is the perfect standard, there are cases where 70 or 85 points is sufficient. Ideally, the work should be completed according to the required level, but there are individuals among the workforce who always aim for a perfect score of 100. When striving for a 100-point accuracy when 70 points are sufficient, it naturally leads to longer working hours.

When someone completes the work with 100-point accuracy even though 70 points are enough, it is crucial how the management responds. The ideal approach is to provide guidance such as "Why did you go for 100 points when 70 points were sufficient? Avoid unnecessary actions." However, some managers praise and say, "It's fantastic that you pushed it to 100 points. Well done." When the members of the workplace hear such statements from their managers, they think, "I won't be recognized for 70 points. I have to aim for 100 points," and everyone starts seeking precision of 100 points in their work. This results in long working hours.

Time is a finite resource, and each individual should consider how to use it efficiently. However, among Japanese workers, there are individuals with a low awareness of using time efficiently who believe that "If it's not finished, I'll just work overtime." Especially when managers hold such beliefs, it leads to longer working hours for the people working in that workplace. Japanese company employees are expected to reconfirm the obvious fact that "time is a finite resource."