David Blecken
Oct 12, 2018

Overwork: a tragedy in Japan spurs overdue change

The theme of overwork, and what to do about it, dominated the end of 2016 and much of 2017 in Japan.

New era? Dentsu CEO Toshihiro Yamamoto bows in front of media after attending the company’s Tokyo trial in September 2017 for labor practice violations.
New era? Dentsu CEO Toshihiro Yamamoto bows in front of media after attending the company’s Tokyo trial in September 2017 for labor practice violations.

The theme of overwork, and what to do about it, dominated the end of 2016 and much of 2017 in Japan. The issue was thrust into the spotlight when a government inspection revealed that workplace pressure had contributed to the suicide of Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old Dentsu employee who had recently joined as a graduate trainee. 

It emerged that Takahashi, a graduate of Tokyo University who should have had an extremely bright future ahead of her, had been the victim of workplace bullying by her superiors, with nowhere to turn due to the lack of a support structure within the company. Her overtime hours ranged from 70 to 130 per month, and she sometimes slept no more than 10 hours in a week.

In something of a perfect storm for Dentsu, the revelation coincided with the publication of the government’s first ever report into karoshi (death from overwork). The study showed staff at a quarter of companies logging more than 80 hours of overtime, and those at 12% working more than 100 extra hours each month.

Dentsu became — perhaps to an unfair degree — a symbol of everything rotten in Japanese corporate culture. The level of vilification was surprising given the Japanese media’s usual reluctance to bite the hand that feeds it, but it ultimately helped bring about positive change. 

January 2017 saw a leadership change, with president and CEO Tadashi Ishii taking responsibility for mismanagement by stepping down. Under Toshihiro Yamamoto, Dentsu has overhauled its way of working in an effort to be more efficient and supportive of staff to improve conditions for the long-term. This involved automating systems to reduce paperwork and other time-consuming manual tasks, remote working, monthly ‘input days’ to give staff space to focus on personal interests and development, and fixed cut-off times to shorten the working day. To be sure, it’s not foolproof and it’s still a work in progress, but it’s a change in mindset that would have been unlikely had the incident not occurred.

Suntory workers enjoy ‘Premium Friday’, a government scheme encouraging employers to let staff out at 3 pm on the last Friday of every month.

It prompted some—but unfortunately far from all—competitors to consider how their own cultures can be improved. In one of the more serious examples, ADK hired an HR director from the manufacturing sector to draft changes, believing that an outside view would be advantageous. Wieden + Kennedy and Publicis started introducing flexible and seasonal hours to free staff up as much as possible. At the other end of the spectrum, there were token gestures, such as yoga at the office. 

With clients and the nature of the advertising business being what they are, the problem of overwork is far from solved, and should remain at the top of agency leaders’ agendas for the foreseeable future.

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