Excuse me for leaving first: understanding a culture of overworking in Asia

Tokyo is under the spotlight for a culture of overworking

In any country overtime is a necessity for the marketing industry. We need it to meet deadlines and ensure that the most creative idea possible goes through to the pitch. Stress and depression is a concern for the industry worldwide but a tragic suicide case in Japan has brought the issue of overwork in Asia firmly into the spotlight.

Japanese advertising giant Dentsu has been at the epicenter of what is an ongoing conversation for industry and businesses in Japan. Dentsu is facing an investigation after an employee took her own life, with overwork being suggested as part of the reason. The term ‘karoshi’ means death by overwork and a government study on the trend earlier this year found long hours of overtime very common, across a range of industries.

New rules on overtime

Both Dentsu and the government have responded to reiterate existing rules around overtime and to take these rules further, in order to discourage over work in the country. Dentsu has issued new rules around overtime, cutting the number of hours its staff can take as overtime and enforcing that the lights go out in the building between 10pm and 5am.

Despite this, many seem skeptical that rules can overpower cultural norms that permeate life in Japan and other Asian countries such as South Korea.

Chris Beaumont, managing partner of North Asia for Results International, has worked in Japan for over 20 years, including time at Grey Group Japan as chief executive and chairman. He explains that inherent cultural differences, such as the importance of the collective over the individual, will be an issue in setting about change.

“Overall, we need to understand the group is more important than the individual. Years ago I coined the phrase ‘soft individualism’. It is the need to balance the belonging-self with the assertive-self, to explain to executives from western firms. In Japan, a company’s reputation matters much more than in most countries and because of cultural differences that reflects a unique role, of harmonious collaboration, that companies play in Japanese society. Japanese prefer expressions of corporate image to direct expressions of opinion,” he explains.

Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu

For many many reading up on the concept of ‘karoshi’ from western markets, the fact that a word is dedicated to overwork may be a surprise in itself. It’s not the only linguistic clue as to the cultural differences, explains Beaumont. “When people say goodbye to their colleagues who they are leaving behind in the office, what they say is more of an apology but not something the company dictates. Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu! It literally means, ’excuse me for leaving first’… not quite sayonara.”

Beaumont says that the levels of stress caused by overwork in Japan may seem high to western observers but other Asian countries suffer similar issues. Y&R Indonesia faced similar criticism in 2013 after a copywriter died not long after tweeting that she’d worked for 30 hours non-stop.

“The ministry [Tokyo Labour Bureau] issues advisories to firms and years ago told prosecutions might follow for continued malpractice. In the government's survey early this year (Karoshi Whitepaper) almost 23% of workers had overtime levels over 80 hours /month – the level at which it is felt work might cause death. These levels are dramatically higher than the west but not uncommon in North Asia where perhaps the levels of stress resulting from work are higher than Japan,” says Beaumont.

Overwork isn't more productive

Adding to the need for change is the fact that overwork doesn’t actually correlate with productivity. Japan has been trailing in its workforce productivity for years, giving very little business cause for such high levels of overwork.

Indeed, Yahoo Japan, a subsidiary of SoftBank Group Corp, is one of many companies starting to buck the trend and find ways to enforce greater productivity while not increasing the working hours. It announced in September that it was looking to move all of its employees to a four-day week and was gradually increasing the number of days that employees could work from home to five per month.

It’s an issue that Beaumont also experienced when agency-side in Japan; “That it was often a board issue in my agencies in Japan, rather than a line management issue, goes to the heart of the cultural nuance of the role of the individual - the so-called Japanese salary man. That time in the office equates to productivity is a misnomer that often caused me conflict – in fact, I strongly believe that it has a significant negative effect!”

Such a high-profile tragedy could be the jolt to action that not just the industry needs to take but wider Japanese society. Beaumont believes that to address such structural issues, moving forward would take a collaborative, multi-disciplinary and cross-industry (public /private) initiative, “perhaps with a clear purpose to drive the country's competitiveness which has waned of late” he concludes.

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