Japan cracks down on workaholic corporate culture

2006

The Japanese government is taking radical steps to rid itself of its image as a nation of workaholics who rarely take holidays and sometimes work themselves into an early grave.

The country's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare is proposing a law that would force companies to encourage people to take their holidays.

At present, heavy workloads and pressure from bosses mean fewer than half the average paid leave of 18 days is ever used by most workers.

An official for the ministry told news agency Reuters: "We feel that people are not taking enough leave. We need to discourage people from working too much so that they can balance work with family."

The government has long tried to encourage workers to take their holidays in the hope they will spend more on leisure activities and boost the economy.

But just as importantly, the government wants to make it easier for workers to juggle work and family to help halt a declining birth rate, said Reuters.

Japan's fertility rate – the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime – fell to a post-war low of 1.2888 in 2004.

And the country's population shrank in the 12 months to October last year, the first decline since 1945.

This decline has fuelled concerns about the possible long-term effects on the world's second-biggest economy from a shortage of workers to support a growing number of pensioners.

But the government may have its work cut out changing the engrained habits of a working lifetime.

Japan has a notoriously hierarchical corporate culture that can make it difficult for employees to ask for more time off than their bosses, who are themselves often stuck in the office.

Some white-collar employees say taking a holiday has become harder than ever before because of tight work schedules after companies cut down on staff to save on costs in recent years, said Reuters.

The agency quoted an official at a Japanese oil company as saying: "We have lots of holidays. But we just can't use them all because we are always short-staffed and constantly busy."

"My boss usually pretends to take holiday but he comes to work," it quoted another company employee.

"He has lots of things to do and he has no time to take holiday, but he wants to avoid trouble with the personnel department," he added.

According to the country's Labour Ministry, out of the total annual leave allotted to staff, the percentage of paid leave taken in Japan fell to a record low of 46.6 per cent in the year to March 2005.

The new bill is likely to be submitted to parliament next year, might also allow workers to convert their overtime hours into leave, whereas currently they are only compensated with pay, said Reuters.

Japan was ranked higher than the U.S, UK and Germany in the average working hours per year in a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development last year.