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Law makers and companies are aiming for shorter hours and a better work-life balance for Japanese people, in an attempt to solve a national productivity crisis.

The Japanese government is hoping a single phrase can overhaul its economy and stop its salarymen and women from working themselves to death. Hatarakikata kaikaku or “work style reform” is an urgent bid to tackle a workplace culture so punishing that the word karoshi, or dying from overwork, has entered the lexicon.

The phrase, promoted recently by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, is a catch-all for cutting overtime, improved work-life balance, and better use of female and older workers’ skills. Used informally for years, hatarakikata kaikaku became a national slogan in August 2016, after Abe appointed a A workplace culture of long hours and rigid hierarchies that served the country well during its high growth years in the 1960s, 70s and 80s has become a thorn in its side. The country’s productivity statistics have languished at the bottom of the G7 and well below the OECD average. And with an ageing and shrinking workforce, Japan’s only hope for economic growth (other than immigration at a scale that would not be supported by the Japanese public) lies in increasing productivity.

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Other changes include enabling employees to telework, promoting women in the workplace, and offering support to working parents such as reduced hour work schedules. In a particularly Japanese touch, one major company is even putting notes at the bottom of emails, requesting forgiveness in advance for delayed responses due to shortened hours.

On the other hand, the recent attempt to have companies let their employees off work early on the last Friday of the month, dubbed Premium Friday, appears to be a dismal failure. A survey after the first such day this past February showed that only 3.7% of employees actually left work early, and enthusiasm appears to have fallen further since then.

So how effective is work style reform likely to be? One recent survey shows that larger companies are doing more to make changes, while smaller firms, already stretched for staffing and resources, and less likely to benefit from a PR boost, are less enthusiastic.

Another difficulty lies in the fact that deep-seated norms in Japanese culture, such as the spiritual value placed on effort and sacrifice, encourage long work hours. The traditional Japanese human resource practices that support a very long working day and value only those employees who work late are not likely to change quickly.

Companies are also reluctant to make the investments in technology that would improve productivity and enable work-from-anywhere approaches. And it may be difficult to make major changes in work styles without first changing the legal infrastructure around employment. To discourage abusive practices such as requiring employees to work unpaid overtime, the government would need to step up its current lax enforcement of labour regulations, and there are no signs of that happening any time soon.


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