This article is part of a content series on diversity, equity, and inclusion for Campaign Asia-Pacific and Greater China’s Women to Watch, created in partnership with EssenceMediacom.
For so many of us, flexibility is no longer a nice-to-have in the workplace, it’s a must-have; an essential that lets us live fuller lives outside of work and balance family and work obligations with equal aplomb. While much of the discourse around workers’ growing expectations for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has focused on the younger generations, by its very definition, inclusivity affects employees of all ages.
This is abundantly clear in Japan, where a rapidly ageing population and low birth rate have made caregiving and generational diversity issues of great import in the workplace and economy.
“Japan’s shrinking population naturally puts pressure on our workplace, prompting us to consider how to manage the business more effectively,” said Asuka Yokota, vice president of client services, Japan, for EssenceMediacom. “As a business, it is crucial to establish a work environment where every individual can perform at their best. Looking ahead, Japan needs to prioritise this for the collective progress of our nation.”
EssenceMediacom Japan’s managing partner, Kenshi Arai, opined, “Growth and expansion can’t be achieved by only seeking business goals.” Arai sees a robust DEI programme that sets employees up to experience “self-growth and connect with their families and societies” as instrumental to a business’s overall success and sustainability.
Japan’s “super-aged” population’s effect on work is manifold; from a higher proportion of employee-caregivers at all ages to a greyer workforce, as well as the growing purchasing power of senior consumer demographics.
Ally Doube, head of marketing, Japan, Uber & Uber Eats, emphasised the importance of considering generational diversity through the consumer and product lens, as well as in the workplace. “If we were not to target elderly consumers — who are often tech-savvy and independent — we’d miss a huge segment,” she said. “Additionally, Uber and Uber Eats as a product is in a unique place to help many elderly people with their everyday lives by helping them access much-needed grocery or pharmaceutical products when they might not be able to.”
Having returned to the country in 2022 after 10 years working abroad, Yokota observed a significant — and positive — change as a result of greater generational diversity. “Now, individuals in their 50s and 60s are getting more opportunities at work. If you have the energy, ambition, skills, and experience, you are in demand regardless of age. It’s about how you can contribute to the business and the team. In that sense, we now have equal opportunities for everyone across generations.”
Besides older generations, that equal opportunity approach also applies to those in the “sandwich generation,” or those who have both children and elderly parents to care for. The need for intersectional familial aid, generational diversity, and gender diversity in the workplace presents an opportunity for leaders and workplaces to “reshape organisational cultures,” said Doube. “As leaders, we must set the tone for a positive cultural shift through leading by example and actively supporting employees in achieving a healthy work-life balance, as well as policies such as flexible work, carers’ leave, and parental leave.”
The best policy
From an organisational standpoint, striking the balance between flexibility and structure is key to showing compassion while encouraging business results. Wendy Siew, managing director, Japan, EssenceMediacom, shared that the agency uses flexible and protected hours as counterweights so that staff can take on ad hoc ‘life admin’ such as “picking up the kids or prepping dinner” while also ensuring that 60% of the workday timing is consistent throughout the organisation, and encouraging “collaboration, productivity, and accountability.”
As Siew explains, “This creates flexibility for parents and caregivers to balance both work and home responsibilities, but also provides clarity and consistency so that we as an organisation can act compassionately, whilst still maintaining a sense of balance and fairness to all.”
And it really is an issue that will affect all — as Doube puts it, “All employees at some stage of their life will likely need to care for someone, whether it’s their parents, kids, partners, or themselves. This is an inevitable and distinctly human need.” Besides offering a hybrid work policy, unlimited leave, and support through a raft of ERGs, Uber values flexibility on an organisational level, enabling Doube to make individual arrangements with her team members, many of whom are parents.
“I have a mum on my team who asked to work non-traditional hours — so she starts work at 6am, which allows her to focus on family time from 4pm. She’s an absolute superstar marketer, an incredible mum, and I feel so lucky I can help support her in being able to better balance the demands of these two roles,” said Doube.
With that said, it’s crucial to foster an environment where employees feel encouraged to take advantage of these policies — especially when the physical, emotional, and mental burden of caregiving so often goes unspoken. On the national stage, the risk of employee-caregivers leaving the workforce en masse to look after relatives is so great that the Japanese government is drafting a law requiring companies to be more forthcoming about familial aid benefits
such as nursing care leave.
Arai commented, “Japan’s uniqueness lies in peer pressure, in both good and bad ways. It gives us solidarity and makes the impossible possible in disaster recovery and team sports, for example. However, in the workplace, it also creates pressure not to take leave, as people think we shouldn’t inconvenience others.”
To ease the pressure around taking leave, Siew advocates for a top-down approach. “Senior leadership should set the example on practices like advanced leave planning and clear communication so that there is really no ‘stigma’ to taking leave,” she said.
Besides carer leave, one of the most prominent forms of familial aid is, of course, parental leave. However, Arai’s observation of Japan’s stigma around inconveniencing others is evident in the country’s low uptake of paternity leave
— currently, only 14% of male workers take paternity leave, which Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to increase to 85% by 2030.
At EssenceMediacom, it’s a different story. Siew enthused, “We plan and celebrate equally when someone is expecting a child, regardless of the parent’s gender. Leave backup, flexibility, and workload balancing are all considered equally. Even outside of paternity leave, we can expect that fathers have to go through sleepless nights in their share of the parenting duties.”
Fostering a culture where there is no stigma around parental leave, regardless of gender, has already borne fruit at the agency. Yokota shared that more male employees than female employees take parental leave at EssenceMediacom Japan — something she attributed to a senior manager who took paternity leave and set an example for younger employees.
More broadly, Yokota called for a collective effort fostered by “teamwork and a collaborative culture” in order to maintain balance during individual members’ leave. “One never knows when they might find themselves in a similar situation, and other team members will need to step in and cover the gap for them,” she said. Siew concurred and said, “In times of emergency or the unexpected, outside of any leave or subsidy entitlement, what makes a difference is when individuals feel that their teammates have their back.”