Wake up at 7:30, commute to work, spend 13 hours in the office, run for the last train home, eat, and crash into to bed. The next day, rinse and repeat. Welcome to the insane working hours of a Japanese “salaryman” during crunch times at work. It’s a schedule that sometimes leads to what the Japanese call karoshi–death by overwork. Now, in an attempt to help, the Japanese government is considering a plan to force workers to take five vacation days a year.
Here’s an expat in Japan documenting his typical work week, with 78 hours of work and only 35 hours of sleep:
Now the Japanese government is considering stepping in to stop the madness, with plans to submit legislation that would make five days of paid vacation mandatory every year.
“People are literally working themselves to death,” says Jeffrey Johnson, a researcher at the University of Maryland who studied the phenomenon of karoshi. “There’s an accumulation of case studies of people who worked extremely intense hours, and then died when they were relatively young.” A Japanese nonprofit set up by the families left behind lists one typical example: Mr. Kanameda, who worked as many as 110 hours every week at a snack food company, and died at 34.
Like the U.S., where only half of workers took a single vacation day last year, Japan has a culture that makes people reluctant to take time off. “People truly believe the harder they work, the better they are,” says Johnson. “And there’s this kind of samurai commitment to their employers, this devotion to duty that enables people to lose that almost instinctual self-protection.”
The problem isn’t just long hours, but the intensity of work. Some jobs also incorporate the philosophy of kaizen–continuous improvement–which asks employees to ruthlessly eliminate any second of downtime on the job.
“The idea is that if you’re working on an assembly line, you should be working every moment,” Johnson says. “Even if there’s 20 seconds where you have no work, you need to identify that time as waste. From a stress researcher’s point of view, those are moments when someone might be able to rest and recover a little.”
If the government ends up forcing people to take vacations, that may help. “It’s putting limits on the degree to which people can have this kind of socialized ‘work is more important than anything else’ kind of philosophy take over their entire lives,” says Johnson. “During that rest period, their body gets to recalibrate. It takes quite a while if you’ve had a very intense period of stress. Maybe longer than a typical vacation. But any vacation does help.”
If Japan needs to force workers to take vacations, then the U.S. might want to do the same (a few foward-thinking companies already are). In a year, U.S. workers work 1,800 hours–more than any other country in the world, including Japan. The less money an American worker makes, the less likely they are to take any vacation days.
“When we do go on vacation, we bring all these electronic devices to wire us in,” Johnson says. “We can’t help it. But all of this is one of the reasons there’s so much growth in things like mindfulness meditation–ways of trying to calm the body and quiet the mind. It’s happening because there’s such a great need for it in our society.”