National

Japan modernizing workplace conditions to lure new mothers back

by Noriko Inoue

Kyodo

With Japan’s demographic challenges causing a workforce crunch that is proving difficult for companies to overcome, many are now offering flexible conditions to allow new mothers to return to full-time careers while maintaining their work-family balance.

More women, afraid their careers will stagnate while they are on maternity leave, are welcoming a new climate that is making it easier for couples to share the load.

“It’s actually easier to work full time than I expected,” said Maiko Saito, 37, who returned from maternity leave in April 2017 to work full-time at Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co.

It was her husband, Shinji, also 37, who encouraged her back into full-time employment. He thinks that women who have their work hours reduced because of parental obligations are not realizing their full potential.

“My wife is the type who is an enthusiastic worker. Once she went back, I wanted her to be happy with what she does,” Shinji, who works for the same company, said, adding that his wife’s salary is also a welcome help.

Becoming a mother has improved the way Maiko operates. No longer does she do long hours of overtime; now she gets the same amount done in a shorter time. “My awareness has changed, and so I am more efficient,” she said.

Shinji, who tended to carry a heavy load at work, is now more inclined to delegate to his staff, especially as he now knows that unexpected family emergencies are a real possibility. In turn, he has seen his staff grow into their roles as a result of their increased responsibilities.

On days off, Shinji makes time for his hobbies and errands in the morning while leaving time to spend with his family.

Japan has experienced a shift in which companies have begun to actively promote labor reforms that encourage women to rise into leadership roles. This has not only led to a more supportive and understanding workplace, but has also resulted in a new trend in which employees are leaving early — something nearly unheard of in Japan.

Companies are also becoming more flexible, some now loaning out computers to employees who want to work from home.

At Dai-ichi Life, the company holds seminars targeting women on maternity leave, helping them get a grasp on what they will do once they return while giving advice on how to balance their home and work lives “Women are an important asset. We want their skills to be fully utilized,” said Sachiko Tomidokoro, deputy manager of the company’s personnel department. Yuriko Fujita, a 37-year-old section chief at the same company who started maternity leave in March, plans to return to full-time work in October. Besides worrying about having a fulfilling job, she is concerned that if she slows down, her career will, too.

“Getting back will be a lot of trouble. I hope I am able to flexibly choose (my work) based on the situation,” Fujita says. At food and chemicals company Ajinomoto Co., up until 2016 around 140 employees took up a system that allowed them to work shorter hours in order to spend more time raising their children, but only 120 did so in 2017.

From fiscal 2017, the company reduced fixed daily work hours by 20 minutes and now permits employees to work from home up to four days per week, or from satellite offices.

“We’ve seen an increase in work-style choices, and more employees are switching to full time,” said a representative of the company’s personnel department.

Fathering Japan, a nonprofit group that supports men who are raising children, suggests that providing opportunities for women to work full time after returning from maternity leave pays dividends for the entire family.

“When women work full-time, this closes the disparity between a husband and wife in the time they spend in the home, and it makes it easier to have cooperative child rearing. It also helps with maintaining the motivation for work and one’s career,” said the NPO’s director, Kaori Hayashida.