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Some Japanese Pharmaceutical Workers may slowly be working themselves to Death

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On Christmas Day 2015, twenty-four-year-old Ms. Matsuri Takahashi, a graduate of the University of Tokyo and employee of advertising giant Dentsu, tragically leaped to her death from a company dormitory in Tokyo. The cause of death was “karoshi” or death from overwork. She had clocked 105 overtime hours in October 2015. When I asked a marketing manager from a leading Japanese Pharmaceutical company her thoughts, she replied, “The Dentsu news was very shocking not because of the overtime or suicide, but because the authorities finally decided to do something about it.” The tragedy of Ms. Takahashi’s death lead to the nation’s first white paper on karoshi, endorsed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet in October 2016.

According to the paper, 22.7 percent of companies polled between December 2015 and January 2016 said some of their employees logged more than 80 overtime hours each month, the official threshold at which the prospect of death from work becomes a serious issue.

Morunda surveyed 95 employees of Japan’s Pharmaceutical industry. Although it appears many people put in long hours (Figure 1), only 23.16% of respondents said they worked between 40 and 45 hours a week, suggesting a reasonable work-life balance. However, nearly half of those surveyed (47.37%) worked over 50 hours a week (51-60 hours, 32.63%; 61-70 hours, 8.42%; 71-80 hours, 5.26%; and over 80 hours, 1%). One-fifth of employees logged over 60 hours per week with nearly 15% working over 60 hours a week and 6% working over 70 hours per week.

With all the overtime being clocked, we asked our participants whether they thought that working over 50 hours a month was productive. Overwhelmingly, nearly 80% responded negatively. If employees believe there are diminishing returns on the number of hours worked, it would suggest that companies need to be working smarter not longer.

The survey’s results (Figure 2) report that 22.8% (51-60 hours, 10.9%; 61-70 hours. 4.3%; and over 80 hours, 7.6%) of participants work more than 50 overtime hours per month while 43.5% work more than 30 overtime hours each month. Only 6.5% of responders reported that they do not work any overtime at all.

How does the pharma industry in Japan compare with the wider Japanese workforce and worldwide community? The white paper reported that 21.3% of Japanese employees work 49 or more hours each week on average, well above the 16.4% reported in the US, 12.5 % in Britain, and 10.4% in France. Our survey (Figure 3) suggests that Japan’s pharmaceutical workers are putting in some of the longest hours in the world. Our participants are working well over the national norm with 47.3% saying they worked more than 50 hours a week, or 10 hours a day.

What is the solution to the overworked population in Japan? The government believes one measure is for companies to let workers finish early on the last Friday of every month to encourage them to go out and have fun to curb excessive work hours. The Japanese government and business groups are launching a “Premium Friday” campaign, scheduled to start on February 24, 2017, although it’s unknown how and whether many companies will participate. One quality control manager thinks that companies will look to skirt the problem; he stated, “Last year, we read in our company portal of an ‘incident’ where it was ‘found’ that the operators were working way longer than what was allowed under Labor Law (I believe 90 hours/month?) but was purposely reporting less hours. All the managers were involved and were ‘punished.’ Everyone is doing it. All companies, all departments. It’s just that most companies get away with it.”

Change is slow in Japan, which is an ethnically homogeneous country, however, once everyone is on board the Japanese can move swiftly as seen with dressing down in the summer months to save electricity (cool biz). Time will tell but maybe Premium Friday may be a step towards providing employees with a more balanced life.

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