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Friday / March 24.

All work and no rest: Japan needs to work fresh, not hard

Japanese sleep

By Radha Dhar

Japan, like many Asian countries, follows tacit eastern cultural norms such as punctuality, respecting ranks and hierarchy, portraying a modest character, generally strict behavioural etiquette, etc. One such ‘quality’ which is being called into question by the new findings is Japans belief in hard working ways.

Japan is respected worldwide for its organisation, discipline, and intelligent talent pool.

On paper, most Japanese companies offer the standard ‘9 to 5’ office hours. However, the business culture expects the employees to work late and put in overtime to prove their worth and earn their way up the corporate ranks. Japan is respected worldwide for its organisation, discipline, and intelligent talent pool. However, new reports reveal a major kink in its seemingly flawless corporate machine: lack of sleep. According to a recently released RAND Corp. study; sleep deprivation, when quantified, appears to be costing the country a whopping $138 billion annually. This groundbreaking study about Japan’s sleep-deprived workforce is, ironically, waking up business leaders across the nation. The country is rethinking its corporate culture entirely.

Sleep is not the devil, the workplace culture is

Japan is a perfect illustration of sleep and productivity being directly correlated. Many reputed studies have shown that sleep impacts everything from stress levels and bodily functions to office interactions and parenting of the future generation.

As a 2016 issue of the Rosselli Foundation’s journal perfectly summarised: “Sleeping involves investing in alertness but also a sacrifice of waking time.”

Herein lies the struggle for businesses. The focus tends to be on the side of the simplified assumption that more time in the office means more work produced, resulting in more profit. This assumption does not factor in the impact of alertness on productivity over time, nor does it factor in the quality of the work produced. RAND Corp.’s new study has now thrown a wrench in the works of this long-standing assumption.

Science is clearly signalling Japan to change its workplace culture.

Economics aside, sleep is a life or death matter. A previous government white paper had identified “long overtime hours” as one of the primary reasons for karoshi, a Japanese term coined especially to refer to “death by burnout”. This is backed by fact that sleep deprivation is proven to increase the risk of mortality by 13 percent. Japan already faces the issue of a declining population. Science is clearly signalling Japan to change its workplace culture.

Studying a sleep deprived country: Results are discouraging

Researchers at RAND Europe completed a five-country analysis on this topic. According to their official press release, this was the first research to actually quantify the economic losses caused by the lack of sleep among workers. The study focused on the U.S., UK, Canada, Germany, and Japan.

Japan and sleep

Japanese are known for practising “inemuri” – a practice of sleeping on the job | Photo Courtesy: My Sleep Coach

From a GDP perspective, Japan took the hardest hit. 2.9 percent, or $138 billion of Japans GDP was put on the table every year. The organisation tapped into government and large company data sets on sleep duration to estimate defined costs. It also predicted the future economic effects if the trend continued. Absenteeism (people not showing up for work), employees not working (people taking breaks), and presenteeism (people being present but working at a sub-optimal level) were the reasons traced for the unproductivity.

A recent survey by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare found that almost half of the working population was running on less than six hours of sleep. Meanwhile, the RAND study classified a “healthy daily sleep range” as sleeping between seven and nine hours per night. Those extra few hours, the report found, pay off in tens of billions.

Finding a middle ground: Mindset or Policies?

Companies around the world stress on having a “good work-life balance”. The implementation, however, remains questionable. Anyone who gets up and leaves their desk exactly as the clock strikes 5 gets the glare. That condescending stare from the coworkers makes one feel like that their entire work ethic is illicit. 

Some companies in Japan have now committed to “minimum rest” levels.

This mandates the number of hours workers must be out of the office before beginning work the next work day. Others have amended their policies forbidding the employees from staying in the office after 10 p.m. However, these companies only make up about 2% of corporations recently surveyed in Japan.

Evidently, the sleep department needs reforms. The Japanese government is yet to pass any policies along these lines. In stark contrast, the EU officially mandates 11 consecutive hours of downtime for every 24 hours of work. Perhaps Japan could take a page out of their book. What is the Japanese term for “siesta” anyway?


Featured Image Credits: Asiatown
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