Sleep deprivation wiping out Japan’s productivity

By Luke Mahoney, grape Japan

Trains are a big part of life in Japan. If you live in a metropolitan city, perhaps as a business person, you can expect a considerable commute. An hour or more is average. Traveling business people can spend even more time as they crisscross the city. Hopefully, there’s a seat.

With all this idle time, many commuters take the chance to catch up on some sleep. Indeed, the ability of some to pass out at a moment’s notice in precarious positions is rather uncanny.

While the snoozy gentleman is of a superior breed, scenes of droopy-head commuters or schoolgirls leaning against one another as they nap are far from uncommon. Particularly exhausted individuals often miss their station and may not wake up until the terminal stop.

When you first arrive in Japan, the phenomenon is amusing. However, it quickly becomes awkward when your neighbor keeps drifting into your personal space as they struggle to stay upright. See what I mean?

At these times, a gentle nudge usually rouses a drowsy passenger, but in a moment they've again got their head on your shoulder. Most times, you have to find a new seat or just let it happen and hope they aren’t a drooler.

No Time to Rest

So why all the somnolence? Most signs point to overwork.

Japanese companies are notorious for pushing their employees hard. Deadlines are often aggressive, and workdays are filled with meetings and paperwork. According to a CNBC report, 25 percent of Japanese companies require 80 hours of overtime a month. As part of Japan's "service overtime" culture, those hours often go unpaid.

Employees are also forgoing their paid time off. An Expedia study discovered that workers often neglect their paid vacation days and feel guilty when taking them. Buddhist ceremonies even exist to mourn unused time off.

While some may suspect employees are overtly devoted, the reasons behind the lack of time off are likely more suspect. Employees have faced disciplinary actions and termination for using their leave. Expecting mothers, on the other hand, often face pressure to quit rather than take maternal leave as their due date approaches.

Extreme Schedules

Indeed, office cultures and workplace pressures are intense.

In their coverage of the issue, The Japan Times reported on an extreme example. Their article focused on a young convenience store employee, Fumiyoshi Shimizu, as he rose through the ranks of SHOP99. Upon becoming a manager, his normal eight-hour shifts were massively extended.

15-hour shifts became the norm. During these workathons, Shimizu had no time for breaks. On a particularly bad day, he began work at 7:45 a.m. and ended the next day at 7:32 a.m. After a 90-minute break, he again clocked in for another grueling 23-hour shift.

However, as a manager, Shimizu was considered an “executive” and ineligible for overtime pay. While he made 300,000 JPY ($2790) with overtime pay as a trainee, he received only 220,000 JPY ($2045) for a 350-hour month as a manager.

Understandably, Shimizu lost sleep. He noted, "On the days when I could get home at a reasonable time, I knew I had to get to bed quickly, but my pulse was still racing. My phone became an object of fear, to the extent that I could never get any meaningful sleep." He naturally lost weight and developed health problems. After a negative health check, he sought specialist help and quit working.

Red-eye Employees

As Shimizu’s story points out, there are clearly dangers to sleep deprivation and overwork.

This is likely troubling news for Japan. A 2017 Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare survey measured the sleeping patterns for men and women. A significant portion of young working adults reported that they either did not feel properly rested or had no real sleep. Nearly half of all working adults reportedly receive less than six hours of shut-eye a night.

It's easy to suggest that sleep-deprived employees are overworked. Still, you'd expect such a situation to be a bastion of productivity. Sadly, grueling work schedules may be paradoxically hampering productivity. According to data by the OECD, Japan has the lowest productivity among G-7 nations.

So, maybe its time for consumers to take a break. Companies are certainly picking up on the opportunity. The Nescafe Sleep Cafe is providing a room to nap by offering 30 to 180 minute sleep courses in simple rooms. Other businesses are joining the Power Nap Project, supporting naps during the day. Participating companies offer hooded blankets and the like while encouraging short, 15 to 20-minute naps at the office. It'll be interesting to see if the initiative increases productivity or simply leads to more bedhead at work.

Read more stories from grape Japan.

-- Japanese businessman with ADHD develops a novel way to get organized and stay focused

-- Japan must look to the medical industry to save its flat-lining tourism industry!

-- Japanese engineer shows “where stars are born and die” in galactic beauty

© grape Japan

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

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this is nothing new yet nothing meaningful is being done about it.

10 ( +10 / -0 )

..and nothing will be done, especially by big companies. Too much money lost by making people more human.

10 ( +10 / -0 )

When my mother came to Japan, she couldn't stop giggling at how easy the Japanese were falling asleep on the train. Two minutes later, she herself was sleeping.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

As long as companies view employees as interchangeable machine parts and employess accept this as "normal", don't look for anything to change. It's little wonder that the entire country is chronically depressed, when their lives are so devalued.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I was in the Navy nuclear power program and in one command we worked 12+ hr. days and we had to take a long commute. Sleep was broken. No more of that for me, thank God.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

To be fair a lot of people have plenty of time to rest and sleep but choose to go out drinking and watching netflix until 2 am. That is not the company's fault.

3 ( +4 / -1 )


True. I remember someone who was at an old workplace. I was asking him why he was always working until late. His reply was 'Because the wife and kids are at home'.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

ironic isn't it, the byproducts of being productive is impeding people to be productive in the first place. I second reckless, people have a choice with what to do with their 24 hours everybody is equally given. It's either you spend 3 hours at home sleeping or watching netflix. You shouldn't be complaining that you're sleep deprived when you've watched hours of your beloved series, it's your choice.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Another downside to not getting enough sleep is a weakened immune system. In general, eight hours of sleep is good for one's health.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Sleep v Netflix? If they weren’t over worked there would be time for both!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I find it really hard to sympathize with people like Shimizu. Grow a pair and dispute it with the boss or find a different place to work, it's not exactly a highly skilled and difficult job to find.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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