A draft update to the outline of government measures to stop the deaths and suicides of company employees caused by overwork sets the first numerical target to promote the introduction of a system that guarantees intervals between each day’s work — to ensure workers get enough rest on a daily basis. As a measure to reduce the chronically long work hours of many corporate workers, the work-style reform legislation now before the Upper House imposes the first-ever legal limits on the maximum monthly and annual overtime work hours, but sets no limits on the total hours that employees can clock in a day. The legislation does urge employers to try to introduce the work-interval system. But setting a specific target for its introduction will be another step forward in the efforts to end overwork of employees that endanger their health.

The European Union requires its member states to make sure that their workers are given at least 11 hours of uninterrupted rest over each 24-hour period. Families of karōshi (death from overwork) victims and their supporters have called for the broad introduction of such a scheme in Japan as an effective tool to prevent excessively intensive work by many corporate employees.

However, the introduction of such a system remains quite slow in Japan. According to a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey last year, a mere 1.4 percent of companies polled had instituted such a system, with more than 90 percent of the respondents said they neither have plans for or are considering introduction of the system. Roughly 40 percent of the firms that have not launched the system said they do not even know about it.

The 2014 law on promoting anti-karōshi efforts stipulated that it is the government’s responsibility to take measures to stop deaths from overwork. Under the law, the government compiled an outline of its efforts to eliminate death from overwork, which is to be updated every three years. The draft of the new outline, put together last month by a health ministry council comprising representatives from the business and labor sectors as well as relatives of karōshi victims, will be formally adopted by the Cabinet in July.

The draft new outline sets a target of getting at least 10 percent of the companies to launch the work-interval system by 2020, though it did not specify the required length of each interval. To raise awareness of the need for such a system, the outline calls for reducing the ratio of firms unaware of the system to less than 20 percent of the total.

The work-style reform legislation under deliberation sets the first legal cap on overtime hours — which have so far been effectively left in the hands of labor-management agreement at each firm. Overtime hours for workers must in principle be kept within 45 hours a month and a total of 360 hours a year. Even under an accord between the management and the labor union to extend the limits for busy seasons, the maximum monthly overtime hours must be kept within 100 hours or an average of 80 hours over a period of two to six months, and the annual hours within 720 hours.

The fact that the cap on overtime hours under the new regulations is set at the same level as the government’s standard on linking the physical and mental health impairment of workers to overwork under the labor accident compensation scheme — 100 hours of overtime in the month just before developing the illness or 80 hours over up to six months before the symptoms emerged — has incurred criticism that the proposed regulation will not be effective enough to protect the health of employees from overwork.

Also, even when a monthly cap is set on the total overtime hours, no legal upper limit will be imposed on the daily work hours, leaving room for the workers to keep working intensively for an extended period without sleep or rest during busy times. That risk will be reduced if the work-interval system is properly put in place. The government should take further steps to promote the system, and companies should actively introduce the system in their workplaces as an effective tool to protect the health of their staff.

Efforts to combat the overwork of corporate employees must not end with the introduction of a few new regulations. The health ministry’s draft outline called for beefing up supervision and guidance of businesses suspected of getting their employees to engage in overwork. Many cases of fatal overwork have taken place at companies where employees’ work hours have not been properly recorded — or where the employees were even told to underreport on their overtime hours. Having an accurate grasp of employees’ work hours will be key to protecting them against the health risks associated with overwork.

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