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A RESTFUL WORKFORCE

Overworked Japan slowly adopting fixed rest hours to put an end to ‘karoshi’

by

Staff Writer

Amid intense pressure to reform the country’s work culture, the government and businesses are looking at mandating a “rest” period between the end of one workday and the start of the next.

Some companies have begun testing a rest interval system, while the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to subsidize firms that adopt the system starting in April.

The following are questions and answers about the concept.

What is the interval system?

Essentially it is a system whereby workers must take a minimum number of hours rest between when they finish work one day and start back at work the next day.

Member nations of the European Union, for example, require that workers have at least 11 hours of rest.

Japan currently has no law requiring workers to take a certain number of hours’ rest between shifts.

Are many companies using the interval system now?

No. According to a survey conducted by Mizuho Information and Research Institute between December 2015 and January 2016, only 2.2 percent of the 1,743 firms canvassed had a fixed-time rest rule.

Does the government plan to make it a regulation like the EU?

Not at this point. Katsunobu Kato, minister in charge of labor reform, told a Diet session last Friday that Japan “does not have an environment where punitive measures for breaking the rule can be introduced,” citing the low percentage of firms that require fixed hours of rest.

But it is encouraging companies to voluntarily pursue the initiative from fiscal 2017, which starts April 1.

The health ministry has a ¥2 billion budget to provide subsidies of up to ¥500,000 to small and midsize firms that try out the fixed-time rest rule. According to the ministry’s website, companies looking to apply for the subsidies need to implement at least a nine-hour rest.

Why is Japan now pursuing fixed rest hours?

Traditionally, Japanese culture had viewed long working hours as virtuous and proof of job dedication.

But such views are becoming obsolete. Long working hours have recently drawn intense scrutiny following the high-profile 2015 suicide of Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old first-year worker at advertising giant Dentsu Inc.

Last September, the labor standard inspection office in Tokyo recognized her death as karoshi (death by overwork). The death threw the issue of overwork into the public spotlight.

“We must correct the culture of working too much through labor reform. By doing that, people can enjoy their lives and we can prevent cases of karoshi,” Prime Minister Abe said on Jan. 30 during a Diet session.

What are the views of companies with the interval system?

Tokyo-based major mobile phone carrier KDDI Corp. introduced the rule covering some employees in 2012 and expanded it to everyone except managers in 2015.

The firm requires employees to take at least eight hours — and ideally 11 — of rest between shifts in order to have a healthy life.

The system is among measures meant to change the work mindset of employees, a goal considered “the biggest priority,” said Tatsuo Moteki, payroll manager at KDDI Corp.’s human resources department.

“The mindset needs to shift to how to produce value within a limited time. Otherwise, there will be various demerits, such as not being able to attract quality personnel from overseas,” said Moteki.

Unicharm Corp., a Tokyo-based manufacturer of child care and household products, introduced a rest interval of at least eight hours in January.

Like KDDI, Unicharm introduced the system to increase productivity within a limited time, said Yukinari Watanabe, senior manager at Unicharm’s global HR and administration division.

By having more leisure time, they can live healthier lives and engage in self-enriching activities — a plus for the company, said Watanabe.

Both KDDI and Unicharm said there were concerns the interval system could disrupt business because the rule might lead to lost opportunities during busy seasons.

“Some people said that long work hours are sometimes essential when pursuing the best outcome,” said Watanabe.

“It’s a valid point that people need to work long hours to produce results, but such working styles won’t last forever. The company and employees both have to try to seek ways to get their jobs done within the rules.”

Asked if the eight-hour rest that includes commuting time is enough, the two firms said it was a minimum requirement.

Unicharm’s Watanabe said the firm hoped to increase the eight-hour minimum in the future.

What impact has the rule had on these firms?

KDDI said the carrier didn’t have that many workers putting in long overtime hours before it adopted the system.

The system has, however, allowed KDDI to manage its personnel differently — from how much they are working to how much they are resting.

Moteki said the firm had been aware of how many hours a month employees were working before fixed-time rest was introduced. Their overtime levels had not exceeded the legal limit, but when the company looked into how much rest employees were taking, it realized that about 20 employees per month didn’t meet the interval rule on about 15 days.

“We now see people in ways we didn’t see before,” so the company can offer them help before they start to have health trouble, said Moteki.

Unicharm and KDDI admitted that while the cultural norm of long working hours is changing, some employees still have that mindset.

Watanabe said that it’s still too early to see visible effects from the new policy, adding the firm needed to make employees more aware of why the rules to get enough rest were necessary.