Killer Work Culture in Japan
Death by overwork is a phenomenon the Japanese call "Karoshi" which literally translates to "overwork death" and it's become a major topic surrounding corporate culture in Japan. Death ultimately occurs by heart failure, suicide and a number of other causes which trace their roots to long hours and hostile environments.
As details to the circumstances become public, the president or CEO often resigns in an effort to "save face" for the company. Cases continue to mount and there have been a number of measures to try to improve this situation in Japan.
One of the more public measures to curb Karoshi is Premium Friday. It is a PR campaign by the Japanese government and the Japan Business Federation to promote leaving work early the last Friday of every month and enriching personal lives. The event is promoted through things like happy hours, sales, events. It all has kind of a "Black Friday" vibe to it. There is the rather transparent ulterior motive of boosting economic spending.
However, this effort hasn't shown particularly fruitful. Karoshi is still happening and many Japanese are not leaving work early on Premium Friday. SO WHAT'S WRONG?
I think there are THREE main drivers for why it isn't getting MUCH better.
1: Culture Problems
Japan's corporate culture has an issue of what performance is. The "Salary Man" stereotype is long working hours and distance from one's own family and personal life. Japanese corporate culture is very group oriented and has a tendency to ignore personal contribution or performance. Achievements are typically seen from the group perspective, and when personal contribution is ignored, what remains is an attempt to show commitment to the group by working long hours and not leaving work if others are still working. Moving towards a culture that recognizes individual contributions relating to performance and moving away from rewarding all team members regardless of performance will help reinforce the concept of "work while you are at work and leave when you are done".
2: Bullying Problems I think there is an underbelly of bullying and hostility to the details that surface in many karoshi cases. Not only are many of these people that end up dying working long hours but they are doing so working for a boss or team who is acting unprofessionally by creating a hostile work environment. Reducing working hours for people is a simple answer with a simple solution. However, addressing management styles can be much messier and personal. The bottom line is that people working less hours in a hostile work environment can still commit suicide.
3: Attrition (or lack thereof)
Don't like your work? Leave. Right? This isn't necessarily the case in Japan where lifetime employment is still the typical societal expectation for people with careers. While this is slowly changing it is still a very dominant concept in Japan. This has conditions in which people will work tilted in favor of the employers. Companies in the US must tread more carefully in terms of work/life balance because people are more likely to leave for greener pastures.
The conversation has started in Japan about how to address this issue. With population decline, suicides, and overwork Japan as a whole is beginning to ask some difficult questions. I personally believe that it would only take a handful of companies to figure out a win-win for their employees to change the entire game in Japan.