Twitter thread sparks debate on Japanese vs American sick leave policies, overwork culture

By Katy Kelly, SoraNews24

It’s hard to tell exactly how much of a universal constant the phenomenon of “sick leave anxiety” is, but both in Japan and my native England I felt a dire and existential dread every time I had to pick up the phone to call in sick. Even if I was hallucinating, losing vision, bleeding from every orifice: “Listen, I can still work! Put me in the game, coach!”

While companies in both my home country and Japan are legally required to give leeway when it comes to sick employees, actually taking that sick leave is another matter entirely. Even if your boss gives the go-ahead, there’s the knowledge that everyone else in your office will have to pick up your slack. There’s also the realization that if work is particularly tough that day, lack of morale might be blamed entirely on you. In a worst-case scenario, taking too much sick leave (even for a good reason) creates a fear that it might convince your superiors you’re not cut out to keep working there.

So the following story from Twitter user @mike_flaherty03 (yes, his account is named after the "Spin City" character) is particularly thought-provoking. “Mike”, as we’ll call him from here on out, works at a company with frequent international conferences conducted in English – and he’s candid about how he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, making those tough calls even tougher and seemingly more frequent.

In this thread, he reminisced about his first time telling his American boss that he would occasionally need to opt out due to sickness.

“When I first brought up the issue of my health with my American boss, I told him I might need to take days off from time to time to handle it. He immediately replied, 'Oh, you can just work from home on those days.'

I protested, 'But what about the others in the office? Won’t they think that’s unfair?'

My boss answered, 'Why would they? I think it’s much more unfair that someone should struggle in an environment where they’re incapable of working at full capacity.”'

It was as though the scales had dropped from my eyes, and I realized he was right.”

He clarified his statement in a follow-up tweet:

“Now, don’t get me wrong. The world of foreign-owned corporations is unforgivably cut-throat. Even if they make accommodations for you in your workplace, you must produce results – or else you wind up with a lower salary, and you can never rule out the possibility that you could be fired without warning. So please don’t presume those accommodations are a ‘soft option’ – I work every day with that stress hanging over me.”

One of the first replies to his comment, from Twitter user @fiore_eterno, brought up the story of an American acquaintance, who told them that “working healthily isn’t a privilege; it’s an obligation that workers owe it to themselves to respect” and therefore “it’s ethical to rest when sick”. Mike agreed, saying “it seems like a fundamental difference in how they think, compared to Japan.”

It’s no news that Japan has a critical overwork problem, with a 2016 survey citing overwork as a leading reason that 40 percent of Japanese people sleep six hours a night or less. While the government has attempted to curb the worst offenders with lights-out policies and even drones to monitor that employees will leave when expected, there is a definite cultural compulsion that drives the desire to stay back longer.

This is broadcasted loud and clear in @fiore_tereno’s second reply: “I think the root concept is different: In Japan, it’s more like ‘you owe it to your customers to be at peak performance’.”

Another comment highlighted it even more graphically:

“Foreigners really do approach this issue differently! Our whole attitude toward working is different, too. If you were to propose that around a Japanese company, you’d always be worried that someone might say 'Ah, getting special treatment are we?' and so no one does it. I think it’s more of a problem to yell 'Let’s all pull our weight together!' when the working conditions are bad, so it’s nice to see this perspective.”

There were numerous other voices of assent throughout the thread, with many users saying “your boss is right, for sure” or “it’s a shame you would never hear this from a Japanese boss”. Envy was also very present: it’s no wonder Mike had to post his second comment, with so many users clamoring for his boss to hire them instead.

It’s important to note that while this concept has many supporters in the thread, the reality is that Japan still has much work to do. As recently as 2017 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went on the record to state more aggressive work reforms to stop overtime (and presumably help workers use their sick leave responsibly), prompted by the karoshi death of journalist Miwa Sado. Only time will tell if this possible precedent set by foreign owned companies will take root. Until then, we’ll just have to wait and see what unorthodox methods Japanese bosses cook up to get their employees to stay home for a change.

Sources: Twitter/@mike_flaherty03 via Hachima Kikou, Reuters

Read more stories from SoraNews24.

-- Japanese work ethic tested, how high of a fever will you run before calling in sick?

-- 30 things workers in Japan often find themselves thinking in their first six months on the job

-- Foreigners dish about the weird antics of Japanese “salarymen”

© SoraNews24

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.

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There really isn't any debate. Japanese work practices are a killer, literally.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

AFAIK, Japan is the only country that has an actual word meaning "dying from overwork", as opposed to other countries where they just say "dying from overwork" on the rare occasion it happens.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Abe just made unpaid overtime for full time employee's legal, nothing is going to change with this government.

6 ( +6 / -0 )


Yes he did, didn't he. Unbelievable.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I think there is karoshi in the US, such as the recent celebrity chef suicide. But it tends to be of one's own accord as opposed to being forced to overwork as in Japan.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

... everyone else in your office will have to pick up your slack.

For the past 20 years I’ve asked office workers who does their work when they’re sick, on vacation, taking maternity leave, on a business trip etc. Their answer, so far, is “No one.” One reason they don’t take their legally mandated vacation time is that their work increases when they get back. One day vacation = two days’ work on return.

How often have you called a company and been told “he’s not at his desk right now” implying -no one else knows what he’s doing.

Also, that celebrity chef / travel journalist had a depressive personality and his suicide had nothing to do with overwork (I’ve heard it was over a breakup with his girlfriend plus his depressive disorder.)

2 ( +3 / -1 )

It is not that the Japanese overwork, it is that they stay in the office extra long faking work. Big difference.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

It is not that the Japanese overwork, it is that they stay in the office extra long faking work. Big difference.

First time I agree with something you say.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Hey, to be fair, the reason my boss stays in the office extra long and faking work is to keep his nest of eggs warm on his chair.

But also is a JP guy goes home early his wife will give the cold wtf stare, thinking he is a slacker and gonna be fired.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The work system in Japan is completely backwards because it's rare to find people heading companies with flexibility and ideas to correct the many shortcomings.

Newly hired employees having to work at reduced rates for "training period" regardless of whether they are fresh grads, or season pros - dumb. Bring on new employees with varying levels of experience (years, qualifications, etc), and telling them everyone starts at the same wage - dumb. Mandatory overtime which gets included into your monthly salary - dumb.

Overwork does not equal better results and increased productivity. Especially in Japanese companies, you'll literally just have people overlapping duties, correcting others mistakes, taking more meetings, and ultimately just wasting more time.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Unavoidable if the business culture is not cutthroat and you won't get fired at the drop of a hat, what that means is inefficient practices and people are not weeded out. Profit must still be made, so the work of inefficient people is passed onto the faster workers, bogging them down in turn, so everyone's hours get longer to accomplish the same tasks. The workload gets unevenly distributed: in the same company one department will be full of folks faking work, but on the next floor you will find 5 dangerously overworked people who only have time to sleep 3 hours a night because they are having to pick up the slack.

In this situation, especially when salary is dependent on seniority and not results, it's to the worker's advantage to be the lazy inefficient one and NOT try to work hard and fast (if you do, you will only get more work handed to you) but companies can't generate profit like that, so what's left is emotional manipulation and guilt-tripping to get workers forfeit their sick leave, vacation time, and overtime pay to make up for the company's poor management of time and people. Why then, don't the slackers go home early? It's the education from elementary school that shames and demonizes the "selfish" who won't put in the same hours as everyone else and glorify the "team players" who do everything asked of them, resulting in workplace persecution of people who leave on time or take time off, even if they have nothing to do but pretend to work. So as not to be ostracized the inefficient workers are careful to create the image of working hard until it's socially acceptable to go home.

It's why so many Japanese companies run on "funiki" "kuuki" and "kiai" alone--emotional, not quantifiable concepts--because emotional means are the only way to motivate workers when salary is stagnate and there is no real threat of getting fired.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Fouxdefa, what utter Bo**ocks.

If I was ill then I was ill and little use to my employer until better so time spent recovering was to their benefit. If my staff were ill I didn’t want them dragging them selves in only to function sub optimally while spreading their illness and undermining everyone else’s productivity.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

If a culture values people, and companies value people over profit, one person working 16 hours inefficiently when two might be hired for to do the necessary tasks efficiently and put in 8 hours each would make for a healthier workforce. I dare say productivity would increase as well.

A company health plan that encourages the sorts of practices and provides supports which allow people to take better care of themselves so that they remain in good health physically, mentally and spiritually would benefit everyone: the individual, the employer, the community and the country.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@englisc aspyrgend

I agree with you, I just described what I see going on.

As the original Twitter elaborated, working in a more Western-style cutthroat competitive company has its risks and drawbacks. As does the Japanese corporate culture, which gave the world the word "karoshi". In my office I have to periodically remind myself to step back from the mind games, look at things more objectively and do what I need to do to keep myself healthy.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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