Miserly use of vacation days

Japan may be the country with the fewest vacation days in the world. According to a recent poll by the labor ministry, in fiscal 2013 Japanese workers used less than half of their annual leave, taking only nine of the average 18.5 paid vacation days that they are entitled to. Around 16 percent of workers took no holidays at all.

As a result, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently announced it is considering making the use of vacation days compulsory, or at least partially compulsory, by submitting a bill to the Diet. The bill would oblige employers to have workers who are entitled to a minimum of 10 paid vacation days annually to take at least five of them. Workers should take all of them, but five days would at least be a start.

The contrast to working conditions in other countries could not be more striking. Recent polls showed that French workers were allowed 37 paid vacation days in 2010, and took 93 percent of them. Spain had 32 vacation days and Denmark 29, with the average employee using more than 90 percent. In a country like Japan, where death from overwork (karoshi) is legend, making paid vacation days a normal part of business practice is essential.

Changing the workplace culture of Japan won’t be easy. However, if Japan is going to continue to remain economically competitive, ensuring that workers have sufficient time away from work to relax and unwind is key. Prioritizing work over private life is often linked to Japan’s postwar economic success, but that is more mythology than actuality. Many other economies became powerful while maintaining a good work-life balance.

Japan’s workplace culture of long hours, few vacation days and unpaid overtime is one of the leading causes of depression and other mental health problems. Taking time off is necessary for a healthy attitude toward work and life in general. Japan’s relatively low levels of happiness in comparative international studies surely stems from not having sufficient time off to learn how to be happy.

Not taking vacation days is evidence of the power structure in many companies. Those at the top of the hierarchy have the power to deny days off, demand overtime and control workloads. Companies need to set policies that ensure workers at all levels find ways to share the overall workload so that everyone can take their legally allowed vacation days.

Encouraging people to take vacation days also means they would spend money on travel and other leisure activities. That spending is another way to boost economic activity and keep the level of consumption at a more active level.

While that economic benefit is important, the foremost concern should be the physical and mental health of all workers in Japan. Making paid vacation days compulsory might be the only way to achieve that.