As Japan’s population rapidly grows older, caring for ailing elderly relatives is becoming a serious issue for many people. When people develop conditions that result in them requiring nursing care, their family members cannot predict how long they will have to look after them. The burden may force them to quit working and in the worst case, it might force them into destitution.

It is estimated that about 100,000 people quit their jobs each year to care for ailing relatives. Among the new goals of his economic policies, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set a target of reducing the number of such workers to zero by the early 2020s. In a related move, the Labor Policy Council of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry proposed a set of measures last month designed to help people keep their jobs while caring for ailing family members or raising children. On the basis of these proposals, the government has taken budgetary measures and plans to submit amendments of relevant laws to the Diet this legislative session.

While the proposed steps represent an improvement over current practices, they still provide only the barest minimum support. Importantly, the council pointed out that the burden of providing nursing care for the elderly must be shouldered not only by families but also by society as a whole. Businesses and labor organizations should make further efforts to beef up support for workers caring for relatives.

Currently, employees can take care leave for up to 93 days and are entitled to allowances from public employment security offices equivalent to 40 percent of their salary — an amount that will be raised to 67 percent this year. But they can take such leave for just one uninterrupted period within the 93-day limit. Once the employee returns to work, the leave cannot be taken again unless the care recipient develops a new ailment. The government is moving to reform the system so nursing care leave can be taken up to three times for the same ailment within the 93-day limit.

Workers can take five paid days off a year to care for ailing relatives. People normally use these days to carry out such tasks as applying for benefits under the nursing care insurance system, communicating with care managers and visiting nursing care facilities. The proposed reform will enable them to take paid care leave on a half-day basis, instead of a full day, so they can use their time more efficiently.

Workers caring for relatives are also entitled to such measures as flextime work shifts and shortened daily work hours within the 93-day limit. The council proposed that the period be extended to up to three years and that such workers be given the right to request exemption from overtime.

The government should not think that if these proposals are implemented the situation for workers caring for relatives will dramatically improve. According to a 2013 survey by the Dia Foundation for Research on Aging Societies, only 1.1 percent of such workers used the nursing care leave system, whereas more than 90 percent took regular paid leave to look after ailing family members. Companies need to properly inform their employees of the services available to them. Businesses should also have enough manpower so workers won’t be pressured to avoid taking leave.

Another survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry shows that some 2.9 million workers, 4.8 percent of the nation’s workforce, are providing nursing care for family members. A private sector estimate says that if workers who do not inform their employers that they are caring for relatives at home are included, the number would increase to 13 million people, or 20 percent of the workforce. It should be noted that workers in their 40s and 50s — who should be playing key roles in their workplaces with their experience and accumulated skills — account for about 60 percent of the people who are caring for relatives while continuing to work.

The welfare ministry has found that out of the estimated 100,000 people a year who quit their jobs to care for ailing relatives, 15,000 do so because they can’t find appropriate home nursing care services or vacancies in nursing care facilities. In a 2014 survey by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the nation’s largest labor organization, 30 percent of workers said that they were unable to continue to care for their relatives at home because services under the nursing care insurance system were inadequate. There were also complaints that the 93-day limit doesn’t provide enough time to find an appropriate care facility.

Businesses and labor unions should ensure employment opportunities for people who want to return to work after an unexpectedly long period of caring for relatives. The government plans to increase the capacity of nursing care services and facilities to cover an additional 500,000 elderly people by the early 2020s. It should continue efforts to fully meet the needs of people caring for relatives and to ease their burden.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.