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executive impact

Work-life balance more important than ever

By Taro Fujimoto

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

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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But I later found that mental problems among male workers are much more serious issues in Japanese companies

The Japanese understatement of the year.

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I thank God every day that I am not a Japanese salary man...trains, overwork, all the stupid work customes to follow...must be terrible

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First, you need a job. Wrong time to bring up this issue when jobloss is taking place.

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Quite simple really. 'Work to Live' not 'Live to Work'

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i love to work,it is my culture and even my wife does not want me home.pls leave me alone

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I thank God every day that I am not a Japanese salary man...trains, overwork, all the stupid work customes to follow...must be terrible.

You and me both. Much as I hate being in their company and find them for the most part rude and inconsiderate in public places (for instance, smoking, snorting, pushing in etc), there is a side of me that occasionally feels sorry for them; a side that wants to empathize with their crappy downtrodden and underpaid jobs and probably loveless marriages.

This sense of comradeship with my fellow man lasts maybe all of 2 minutes every month.

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why are companies still "reluctant to adopt the work-life balance?" you would think with a lot of serious problems (murder/mayhem/suicide)related to work stress, companies would be happy to have their employees mentally stable.

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This article implies that work and life (leisure life that is) need to be relatively equal in order to have balance. In boom times, this may have been achievable – but in these economic times, for many there will either be 100% leisure (unemployment) or close to no leisure time – as those employed work hard to keep it that way. Balance after all is a state of equilibrium, without reference to where the fulcrum is placed.

If one of my staff were to approach to ask for work-life balance, they could quite easily reach that 100% leisure mark quite quickly. Rather, the overworked should be asking themselves and their boss, What more can I do? This article is a bit out of touch with corporate reality.

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TJramdom - sure glad i dont work for you. another poster said it well. work to live not live to work. i also dont think it is asking too much to be able to go home and frequently have dinner (or some other meal) with the family - VERY IMPORTANT when kids are involved...and not have to stay just because the boss stays or have to go out drinking nightly with the very same people you have worked along side of for about 13-14 hours a day or give up weekend after weekend to play golf. that is not "what more can i do?" but how much MORE should i sacrifice? that is the balance. nothing there about 50/50.

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My question of What more can I do? - was supposed to relate to how to make the company more profitable. I agree that smoozing is unnecessary and would rather a staff go home to their family than stay behind in unproductive activities. But I stand by my priorities, because unless the company makes it - the employee will not be able to put food on the table.

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TJrandom - agree with you there. but still, there must be some family life for these people - if you ask me, and nobody did, that is what is wrong with society - all societies. if people put their families and their real-life socializing into the mix, they WOULD be more productive is what i meant.

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While some companies are still reluctant to adopt the idea of work-life balance, the government is more eager to promote it.

So how come the lights are still burning bright in the Kasumigaseki Government buildings at 2 a.m. every night?

Once more - do as I say, not as I do.

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Must conclude that overall Komuro-san's observations are right on target. Particularly about younger salary men -- not acquiring new skills and/or reading to gain knowledge. I can count on one hand the number of these guys I see a week: reading anything other than manga, or playing PS2, or on their mobile, or fixing their hair. Same with how many are doing something like learning a foreign language. But see numerous ladies doing it. Does not bode well for the next 20 years or so for Japan as they are producing just another generation of limited skill-set salary men -- which is why domestic effciency is so low. Endless cycle.

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I think in the Japanese company it should be a matter not of "what more can I do" but "how can I do what I do, better?" Improved work habits, a corporate culture that emphasizes better use of time and resources, and a focus on helping every employee to reach their maximum potential will produce better results than simply piling more work on people who are already under-motivated and over-stressed.

I also disagree with the observation that young salarymen are not learning--many of the full-time corporate workers I know in their 30s spend a lot of time trying to acquire new skills and qualifications, both to preserve their jobs and to provide ammunition in case they decide--or are forced--to look for something else.

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TJRandom - Think you have a very strong work ethic...which I admire. However, some statements seemed a bit harsh. Forgive me if I misunderstood anything and by all means clarify if I get it wrong. Just responding for the sake of discussion:

Work/life balance is indeed important unless you want mere drones who don't have an original thought in their noggins that would help keep a company fresh, competitive and ready to move with the times to survive things like a severe economic downturn. People who have more time outside the office would be more satisfied in both their personal and professional lives, be willing to challenge the status quo when needed, be more likely to have pride in their work and have more loyalty to their company. Why settle for staff who ask you "What more can I do?". You really should be looking for employees who ask “How can we do it better?”. With the right work/life balance (of course I do not mean 50/50), you would have employees who don't NEED to ask you, they would tell you, "I have some great ideas that might help our company to continue to move forward." Thus contributing not only to a company’s mere survival but also to its success.

That is not to say overtime and working long hours should be shunned completely. Of course not! But if a company functions effectively, that should not mean staying longer MOST of the time. On days with a normal workload, many workers in this country stay mainly because...just because. No real reason follows that. Unless you want to add, "...the boss is still here" or "...that’s the way it is".

I know you acknowledge the fact that schmoozing is unnecessary and that staff should not stay behind in unproductive activities. The sad fact is, in the corporate reality of this country, that is exactly why, most of the time, employees put in 13 or 14 hour days. Which then swings us back to the point of the article. The work/life balance is out of whack here. People are sacrificing personal time not so much because they are putting in quality work hours but because of a work culture that prioritizes quantity (hours) over quality (productivity).

As Komuro-san stated: “Unlike the manufacturing sector, the productivity per hour among Japanese white collar workers is extremely low,” That seems to be the key and perhaps what you were trying to convey as well. The corporate culture currently does not seem to be so concerned with how good a worker one is or how effectively staff can get results. It seems to place far more importance on how many hours a day employees will stick around the office even if their workload wouldn't actually warrant it, were they working effectively.

So, I guess the bottom line is, better, more efficient and more productive work habits would eliminate the need for the majority of work days to be "overwork" days. Fewer "overwork" days means more time outside of the office for a better quality of life. Hence, a better work/life balance. A better work/life balance means mentally stimulated, satisfied, on-top-of-their-game, forward-thinking staff. A mentally stimulated, satisfied, on-top-of-their-game, forward-thinking body of staff means better workers who are proud to contribute to their company, which, ultimately means...a successful company. An endless cycle...but one that should be.

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A point I haven't seen addressed yet in these comments is the following quote:

"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.”"

I've seen several mentions in these comments about how the article is out of step with the current economic climate, but if you pay attention to this particular passage, you'll see that the article itself couldn't be more timely. QUALITY of hours spent during the regular workday is what should matter. If your workforce is able to accomplish a solid day's work within regular working hours, then that negates the need to pay for overtime. This lifts that financial burden off the shoulders of management, and it allows the regular worker the opportunity to go HOME at the end of the day, spend time with the family, and get a decent night's sleep.

If men would rather stay at work half the night or go out drinking till the early morning hours than go home to their wives and children, that tells me it's time for some major social restructuring. Human companionship and gentleness is so much more vital to mental and physical well-being than a 13-hour workday capped off by a night of drunken karaoke.

A little overtime isn't a bad thing, and anyone who's ever held any kind of office job has probably had their fair share of it regardless of what country you're from. If it's the difference between putting the perfect finishing touches on a presentation for the next morning or leaving those finishing touches till the last minute, overtime is the way to go. But if your workforce is dependent on overtime just because "that's how it is," then the corporate structure needs to re-evaluate its priorities.

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TJrandom - from what I can gather from your comments, it would seem that your "management" style will be more of a factor in your company failing than your staff wanting to have enough work/life balance, that could possibly go along way in preventing them from becoming another burned out salary man.

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In harsh times employees might ask "what more can I do?" to keep the company going and therefore still have jobs. If the company survives, things pick up and become profitable, management will surely ask employees "what more can I do to improve your working conditions, work/life balance, and welfare of your family?". I am out of touch with corporate reality but I guess that's how it works.

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heres an example of my work-life balance!

7am - 5pm job.. once i get home its about 6-6.30 so i start cooking dinner (sometimes i detour to the shop to get food for dinner! then i can be home 7-7.15), eat dinner, do the dishes, spend a little time with my dad and brother, have a bath/shower, bed -- start all over again ;D

My weekday ritual ^^ and i dont even live in japan lolol mum works late so i cook dinner for my brother and dad ;D i walk from the trainstation after work ;] i dont have a licence ^^ and on weekends i enjoy being a teen! xD

I told you my weekday routine because to have a balance with work and your life can be difficult depending on your current situation. I suggest people who wish to balance them, from my own experience, should always look on the brightside of a long day! (ie: Money you've made!) I'd hate to sound like a know-it-all.. but i really wanted to voice my opinion - if you disagree i don't mind ;] its just what works for me! so what everybodys been saying "Work to live not Live to work!" ;D

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What is actually important is how efficiently people work during normal hours.

This is the key point, IMO. If you don't increase productivity, overtime costs continue to remain high, and the work-life balance is unachievable.

The problem is that the bucho sitting at the front desk has most likely spent most of his adult life in the present inefficient system and might not be up to the task of driving change...

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Work is good. Working at something that you value a great deal is wonderful. But working to help others, is blessed. If you notice her smile, she is happy at what she is doing. You can't buy that.

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@Qpeachy871 and mnemosyne23

No complaints in what you have written.

I would add that for many companies today - to survive they will need to rely upon unpaid overtime and the smarts and suggestions from their finest. Whether the employee has a life outside of the office will not affect their bottom line in the short term - but of course could in the long term if work pressures lead to burnout or turnover. For many staff, they will not have an option but to work longer and harder - as there are few other jobs available, and they know that the layoffs are just beginning.

So as a manager – needing to lay off staff because the income is drying up – Who do I select? Those who are regular hours staff, those who put in the extra time doing little, or those who put in the extra time doing more than their job required? It will be those in the last category that will still have a job and a chance at feeding their family, and maybe at a later time enjoying a vacation with their family.

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samsarks...sooo sad!

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interesting posts, but until the WHOLE of Jpn even notices the obviously(to us foreigners)inefficient offices, poor use of time & the buchos that just cant comprehend anything different from the sad lives they have led then little will change.

Actually if many J-companies pushed for more efficient office work it wud put many many thousands on unemployment. I mean does Jpn as whole even want to have a life, they have work, but in my almost 20yrs here I find the majority have trouble enjoying life, they just dont know how & I dont think they will learn very quickly.

But the person who said(TJ maybe)in order for workers to be sucessful their companies need to be making money, well that is very rarely true, look at Toyota or Canon, they were racking it in & passing on tiny raises. The only people who get paid when profits increase is those at the very top of management, & thats worldwide these days, those furhter down get very little in good or bad times.

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I agree with you GW. The big problem is that usually, front line workers rarely get any kind of incentive or thanks. Although, don't forget that here, it is common for most companies to give winter and summer bonuses (for now). Those bonuses though, are just part of the status quo and to the best of my knowledge, not based on individual job performance. I do believe they are based on overall company performance. In an indirect way, that would be incentive to work hard. Or, in the case of Japan, work long.

TJ is also right, the staff who are putting in extra time because they go the extra mile are the people who should get to keep their jobs when layoffs come 'round. That might happen here in some circumstances but unfortunately, the majority of jobs will be axed based on where you are on the totem pole in a company, regardless of job performance. The pecking order here dictates all.

Yes, people should work harder and be more competitive to keep their companies going and to keep their jobs. And due to the fact that layoffs are going to happen, work/life balance might suffer a little for a while. That happens from time to time when things get tough. But the article addressed the fact that people here are and always have been overworked in general; not that people will have to pitch in and do extra in the current economic climate. That goes without saying. What is to be kept in mind is that, in general, if things are working smoothly, companies learn to foster effective work habits - quality over quantity - thereby resulting in better productivity, work/life balance would be more likely to fall into place.

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Balanced life = lower stress, good mental balance = higher productivity at work / go home on time = more time with the kids = kids that feel safe, secure and loved

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connections to work and family both are important for well-being. Don't overlook the appeal of family.

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Balance in life is the most important thing of all. Seeing your family everyday, having to spend time with your children, seeing them grow and achieve those milestones even how small it is, that is more rewarding. That makes you do your best in work and in life = more productivity.

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