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Essay

All work and no play

By Rebecca Quin

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It's 9:30 p.m. on a Friday and I'm sitting at my work desk manically trying to finish a task which is only halfway down my list of things to do. I've been downing coffee at an unhealthy rate since early morning and I need a top-up, so I head to the kitchen and there's actually a queue for the kettle! As it is every day, I'm not the only one that's working late. This is Japan, where overtime is a normal feature of work life. But can, or should, overtime be normal?

Japan has a notorious reputation for long working hours harking back to the "bubble" erawhen, we're told, employees at a firm were more akin to soldiers belonging to a battalion. This dedication to staying late is said to have, in part, propelled the country's remarkableeconomic growth during the '80s. Now, though, people are starting to realise that overtime can lead to depression and even work-related death. The knock-on effect of work, work, work is bad, bad, bad.

There's been a lot of talk about addressing the issue. Recently, I read in the news that the government is outlining a policy to cap overtime hours. I have seen evidence of the change in attitudes towards overtime work. For example, friends have told me they have to take a day off if they work too many hours. If this happens often then they must have a meeting with their manager about how to improve their time management.

According to the latest available figures from the OECD, Japan worked an average of 1,729 hours in 2014, well behind South Korea (2,124) and just behind United States (1,789). On the other hand, European countries like France and Germany clocked in significantly less. My dad works for a bank back home in London, which by virtue should mean that he works longer days than most. However, he usually finishes work around 5:30 p.m. and says that all of his colleagues are out of the office by 8 p.m. People only work after their contracted hours if there's a deadline — they view overtime as an occasional, necessary evil, not an accepted part of the company culture.

So why in some countries are long working hours par for the course whereas in others they aren't? Is it because of this oft- touted notion of Japanese group behaviour? However, I would argue that hard-working America doesn't have this group-oriented mentality.

I think perhaps it's to do with the way we measure success at work. We focus on the number of hours worked rather than getting the job done. Working late automatically means you're doing a better job, right? Maybe it's time to take stock of our priorities.

On that note, I'm off home.

よく働きよく遊べ

金曜の夜9時半を過ぎても仕事を終わらせようと残業していた筆者。オフィスには同じように遅くまで働いている人が大勢いることを知り、そうだった、日本では残業は普通のことなのだと実感する。

The Japan Times ST: July 15, 2016

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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