If there is one country that epitomises a culture of dedication, sacrifice and complete commitment to your job, it is Japan. The Japanese work ethic is legendary, and was widely regarded as key to the country becoming an economic superpower in the latter half of last century.
Yet in recent times Japan as a nation has begun to do a lot of soul searching about its rigorous work culture. For a start, the economic miracle that made Japan the hi-tech industrial envy of the world has stalled. The country’s economy has been wracked by bouts of deflation for the past two decades. In true Japanese style, the response has been to push everyone to work even harder. It hasn’t worked.
More worryingly, Japan’s addiction to overwork has reached the stage of causing serious social problems. Claims of ‘death by overwork’ – namely, individuals driven to suicide by punishingly long hours and sleep deprivation – have soared.
One scandal which saw a young advertising executive take her own life because she could no longer cope with her employer’s overtime demands resulted in the government considering legislation to force companies to send workers home at 3pm on the last Friday of every month.
There is a growing movement calling for companies who force employees to work excessive hours to be held responsible for traffic accidents when exhausted commuters fall asleep at the wheel. One legal case saw a company ordered to pay compensation to the family of worker tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.
These are extreme cases. But they illustrate what can happen when the concept of hard work is pushed too far. When working hours are stretched to the point of interfering with people’s ability to get a good night’s sleep, you are starting to risk serious psychological and potential long term physical damage.
Always on work culture
The UK’s work culture has not reached the point of comparison with Japan. But things are not perfect, and there are worrying signs we are falling for the same fallacy that has caused so many problems in Japan – that when things aren’t going well, the only answer is to work even harder.
A 2016 study by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that leadership roles in the UK were characterised by an ‘always on’ working culture, in which managers routinely did unpaid overtime, cancelled annual leave and took work home. The idea that responsibility meant working longer and longer hours was unsurprisingly linked to elevated levels of stress and anxiety in management positions. According to the CMI, the need to work longer and longer actually stems from poor leadership practices which lead to time and resources not being managed efficiently.
In other words, working harder and longer is more a part of the problem than the solution. Who is really happy when you sacrifice family, friends and free time for work? One study found that a staggering 83% of UK workers felt guilty about the amount of time they worked, and more than half felt it had a negative impact on their relationships with their children.
The main point is, when you are not happy, when you are stressed, tired and feel guilty about not spending time with your children, you are never going to work at your best anyway. Your substandard performance is just likely to create more work, keeping the cycle spinning all over again.
Whichever way you look at it, it really isn’t worth it. So next time you are tempted to stay that extra hour reading through that report again, don’t. Put it down, go home, do something you enjoy and rest.
You will be much closer to your best the next day for it.