By noon on October 12, Japan was preparing for the arrival of Hagibis, the most powerful typhoon to hit the country in decades. Public transportation came to a standstill and commercial flights were halted, while mobile phone orders were launched as the risks of floods, landslides and deadly winds increased.
At a time when the danger was increasing, social media documented the complaints of workers who were forced by their employers to confront the changes of nature and get to work. Many of the businesses identified – coffee shops, real estate agents and sushi restaurants – did not provide basic services.
But the words were true. Two weeks ago, the government published a report on Japan’s overtime crisis, which indicated that progress in eliminating one of the country’s most serious workplace problems was slow.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Japanese workers sleep less than any of their peers in advanced economies: they sleep an average of 442 minutes in 24 hours, compared to 528 minutes in the United States.
The ethos and expectations behind emails asking employees to bring “extra blankets and snacks” in case they are stranded by a hurricane at work are one of a myriad of issues around overtime, from companies banning bathroom naps to the fact that last year, 19 workers in their twenties became the victim of “karoshi”, death due to overwork (illness related to stress or suicide).
A 2017 Ministry of Health survey found that about half of Japanese in their forties sleep less than six hours a night. A Rand Corporation analysis a year earlier found that the Japanese economy loses $ 138 billion annually due to reduced productivity caused by lack of sleep.
Jun Kohiama, a neurologist at the Japanese Association for Sleep Research, notes that despite growing awareness of the dangers of poor sleep, the problem is getting worse. An OECD survey last year showed that the Japanese slept on average 21 minutes less in 2018 than in 2014, despite what Kohiama calls a higher level of public concern about the problem. “The Japanese may have a greater awareness of sleep than before, but people tend to like those who dedicate themselves to work and stress without enough sleep,” he says. “I am concerned that the situation has not changed at all,” he added.
His comments come a year after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s groundbreaking “work style reform” legislation was passed to address persistent overtime and other problems in Japan’s workplace.
Legal changes have provided the backdrop for several notable initiatives by companies, such as technology company YRGLM in Osaka, that allow employees to decline work calls and emails on their days off. The reforms also added momentum to Yumi Ishikawa’s #KuToo campaign against company policies that require female employees to wear high heels.
However, these are exceptions, and overwork remains the rule. Key aspects of the Abe Act have yet to be implemented, while labor groups and service lawyers have serious doubts that a fundamental change in Japanese work culture is imminent.
These suspicions were echoed on October 1 when the government published a report on overwork and karoshi, in which it called on industries as diverse as media and construction to take more effective measures to reduce deaths. The report found that labor offices across Japan acknowledged there were 158 deaths due to overtime in 2018 – the lowest total in a decade, but the government warned that the level remained unacceptably high.
Many deaths were due to long working hours and excessive workloads. About 6.9 percent of Japan’s workforce worked more than 60 hours in the last week of each month, the traditionally busiest period for companies, while work-related problems continued to increase as a proportion of Japan’s overall suicide rate, according to the government report.
The problem is so serious that the Ministry of Health has introduced the concept of a “karoshi limit” – a level of fatigue that leads to the risk of a deadly disease such as a heart attack or cerebral hemorrhage. The minimum is defined as overtime work of more than 80 hours per month over two to six months.
In July last year, when torrential rains fell in Hiroshima, Okayama and Ehime prefectures, some 2,768 local government employees were estimated to die from overwork as a result of their efforts after the disaster. The International Confederation of Construction and Woodworkers’ Union has asked the organizers of Tokyo 2020 to allow inspections to ensure that construction work in preparation for the Games does not push hundreds to the karushi limit.
A major effect of the government’s prominent focus on karuchi and workplace reform has been to stimulate a national obsession with sleep deprivation and the norms, habits and ill effects that surround it. For example, the online retail site Amazon.co.jp lists more than 4,000 Japanese-language publications on the subject of sleep, including 82 on sleep deprivation and 121 on sleep quality.
There are thousands of practical, instant solutions for lack of sleep on sale in Japan, especially solutions designed to help tired people get some good minutes of sleep “hedgehog” or nap. Products range from high-tech desk blocks to mini blackout tents that can be stored under a desk for those who need stretching.
Seiji Nishino, director of the Sleep and Neurobiology Laboratory at Stanford University in the US and author of a Japanese best-selling book on sleep, considers sleep quality to be an important area to focus on. “It’s very difficult to get enough sleep, so the option I’m interested in is how to improve sleep quality,” he says, emphasizing that no amount of quality improvement can completely replace the need for quantity.
He adds: “Education is very important. The information available is very inaccurate, but people still believe in certain ideas about sleep. One example is that there is a big difference between individual sleep needs, so we need the group of the individually when we talk about sleep requirements. “
Nishino says that real scientific progress on sleep quality only comes to the fore now that the importance of the data is recognized. Big data collected from smartwatches and other devices that track the way millions of people sleep has dramatically changed the view that sleep quality can be neglected. There is no shortage of suggested methods or programs to help people sleep, but they are generally not developed by sleep scientists.
Elsewhere across Japan, companies are using their daytime sleep policies as a substitute for a broader message that they are serious about improving conditions in the workplace. Rena Hyakuya, a spokesperson for Nextbit IT Services, says a description of a recently introduced company law that gives every employee a 30-minute nap at any time during the workday. The company provided two “strategic” bedrooms and five “tactical” chairs to take an afternoon nap.
She explained that the company has installed a device that can block external sounds from rooms, and that it includes sofas and fragrant odors in its facilities. She added that employees are prohibited from using computers or smartphones in those rooms. “Strategic bedrooms are mostly used by engineering staff,” she says.
Other companies and organizations have launched similar programs in Japanese media that have focused on alleged improved exam results at Mizen High School in Fukuoka Prefecture where the principal recommended that students take a 15-minute nap after listening to lectures by sleep specialists.
But says Kohiama, of the Japanese Association for Sleep Research, which provides facilities that tolerate napping or group naps, may not address the underlying problem. “If you fancy a nap, it means you are not getting enough sleep at night. The idea of companies promoting day naps is not bad, but at the same time, employees should be allowed to go to work early. It does not make sense to take Nap while you work until very late at night. “