One oft-quoted word that symbolizes the plight of overworked Japanese workers is “karoshi” (death by overwork). However, as the economic recession results in an increasing number of companies laying off workers, more people in Japan are starting to realize the futility of not having a private life. The term “Work-Life Balance” (WLB) has become an in-vogue expression in the world's second largest economy.
“The economic downturn is an ideal opportunity for Japanese companies to focus on WLB since it gives everyone a chance to reconsider their traditional working style. Men and women can no longer divide their working lives and private lives without creating some sort of balance,” says Yoshie Komuro, CEO of Work Life Balance Co Ltd in Tokyo. Since being launched in 2006, the company has been offering consultation services to companies on how to achieve WLB for their employees. It also provides a computer system called “armo” to support employees' return to the workplace after maternity, child-care, and sick leave.
Komuro joined major cosmetic company Shiseido in 1999 after graduating from Japan Women's University. During her college life, she took a year off and worked as a babysitter in the United States where she worked for a woman who was trying to balance child-raising and work.
Komuro launched an internal venture project within Shiseido that supports women returning to work from temporary leave through Internet-based applications connecting them with the company. She was named “Nikkei Woman of the Year” in 2004.
“At first, I wanted to create a framework to help women balance child raising and work in Japan. But I later found that mental problems among male workers are much more serious issues in Japanese companies. Work-life balance is important for both men and women,” says Komuo.
Komuro thinks work-life balance is an essential issue for efficiency among white collar workers in Japan. “Unlike the manufacturing sector, the productivity per hour among Japanese white collar workers is extremely low,” she says. “Work-life balance is essential for white collar workers to foster their creativity, especially if they are moving to new types of industries.”
According to Komuro, the most important issues for achieving a work-life balance in Japan are the “personnel assessment system” and “overtime payment” at companies. “People see the 'merit system' from an achievement-oriented viewpoint. What is actually important is how efficiently people work during normal hours. Even if companies pay overtime, it is not good for employees to become reliant on it because all they end up doing is working even longer hours to achieve target sales.”
Komuro tries to convince companies that it is more cost effective to implement a work-life balance than lay off employees amid the current economic downturn. “As companies fire employees or reduce salaries, the remaining employees, especially talented ones, start losing their motivation to work and consider finding new jobs. If companies hire new staff, they have to invest time and money in the newcomers. Therefore, downsizing does not always lead to effective cost reduction.”
While some companies are still reluctant to adopt the idea of work-life balance, the government is more eager to promote it. Fueling the government's concern is increased health care spending and a future shortage of taxpayers to pay for the pension system as Japan's population ages.
Komuro, who is also a member of several government panels on labor issues, says, “The government is finally starting to see women as important taxpayers for the pension fund and wants them to return to work after maternity and child-care leave as soon as possible.”
Komuro claims that, at the individual level, the majority of men, who are in their 30s, single and have no siblings, need a work-life balance because they will be expected to take care of their baby-boom generation parents and grandparents in the future. But she says that men in their 30s are resisting a work-life balance more than any other generation.
“They still think working long hours is the normal thing to do for their companies. They even feel more comfortable staying in the office than being at home. In addition, they don't acquire any new skills. Very few young men read to gain knowledge anymore.”
While major media report that college students are becoming more conservative about employment, Komuro, who has been teaching students presentation skills at free seminars, says, “Actually, I think the younger generation is making rational decisions on employment with an eye to having some balance in their lives. Although some company executives call those students 'immature' (about working), talented students know what is most important about work-life balance.”
Komuro has been raising a 2-year-old son with her husband since the launch of her company. She is confident her son will “find the best job in the best way for him to find the right balance between work and life.”
For more information, visit: www.work-life-b.com© Japan Today