Explained: Why Japan's government is proposing a four-day work week

The plan aims to improve citizens' life-work balance

This photo taken on April 22, 2021 shows the Tokyo Tower from rooftop of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in Tokyo. The seemingly endless sprawl of Tokyo can be hard to take in from the ground. But sky-high observation decks dotted across the Japanese capital offer a fresh perspective. - TO GO WITH Japan-architecture,PHOTOESSAY
 / AFP / Yuki IWAMURA / TO GO WITH Japan-architecture,PHOTOESSAY

Fancy a three-day weekend? You might want to think about moving to Japan, where the government will push employers to introduce four-day weeks.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga finalised the guidelines for the plan this week. According to the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, the plan is intended to improve the life-work balance of the population while taking the labour shortage in the East Asian country into account.

So what's the plan?

The government unveiled the proposal as part of its annual economic policy guidelines. It recommends that employers allow their staff, especially those who have to look after their families or want to learn a skill, to work four-day weeks instead of five.

Japan’s fierce office culture is exemplified by demanding long hours where, as the BBC wrote in January 2020, “It’s normal for workers to take the last train home every night.”

The article highlights how high expectations and guilt stimulates the work-centred society, adding that there was even a word coined in the 1970s that meant "death from overwork".

The word "karoshi" is used to describe death by stresses and pressures linked to work and is still part of the Japanese lexicon today.

However, Japan's office culture has undergone a significant change after the coronavirus pandemic, as employees work from home and spend more time with their families.

The government is now suggesting that companies be more accommodating with working hours, saying a healthier life-work balance will help boost productivity and interconnectedness.

Many are eager to know more about how the plan will be implemented, whether shorter working weeks would also lead to pay cuts. Several companies are also concerned how one less work day in the week will affect their business.

Countries experimenting with shorter workweeks

Several countries are assessing what a more evenly balanced working week looks like in practice.

In March, the Spanish government agreed to launch a pilot project for companies interested in seeing how shorter working weeks will affect their business.

The project was proposed by the small left wing Spanish party Mas Pais as a way to improve employee mental health, well-being and productivity.

“With the four-day workweek [32 hours], we’re launching into the real debate of our times,” Inigo Errejon of Mas Pais said on Twitter at the time. “It’s an idea whose time has come.”

The idea is also gaining momentum in other parts of Europe. In November 2020, a group of left wing politicians and union officials from across the continent sent a letter to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders that said shorter working weeks will help economies recover.

“Throughout history, shorter working hours have been used during times of crisis and economic recession as a way of sharing work more equally across the economy between the unemployed and the overemployed,” the group wrote.

“For the advancement of civilisation and the good of society, now is the moment to seize the opportunity and move towards shorter working hours with no loss of pay.”

In December 2020, consumer goods company Unilever introduced a year-long project, letting its 81 employees in New Zealand work four days a week while receiving payment for five.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern voiced her support for the initiative early on.

According to an article published by The Guardian in May 2020, Ardern thought four-day work-weeks were the answer to rebuilding New Zealand's economy after the coronavirus. She said the idea could give a boost to domestic tourism while international borders were shut.

What critics of the short workweek model are saying

However, the four-day working week is not without its critics. Several companies believe that a shorter workweek will give the competition the upper hand and adversely effect their business.

An 2017 article by the BBC reported on the findings of an experiment in Sweden, where nurses at a Gothenburg elderly care home worked six hours a day instead of eight. It found that the cost of shorter work hours may be greater than its benefits.

"Could we do this for the entire municipality? The answer is no, it will be too expensive," Daniel Bernmar, the Left Party councillor responsible for running Gothenburg's elderly care home, told the BBC.

However, Bernmar said the experiment was still "successful from many points of view" as it created extra jobs for nurses in the city, diminished sick pay costs and instigated global debates about work culture.

The experiment also shed light on the psychological benefits of working fewer hours every week.

"During the trial, all the staff had more energy. I could see that everybody was happy,” assistant nurse Emilie Telander told the BBC.

After 23 months of six-hour shifts, Telander said she did not like having to return to conventional hours. ”I feel that I am more tired than I was before,” she said, adding that she did not have time to spend with her daughter.

The Bottom Line 

There’s merit in the idea that shorter workweeks might alleviate the stresses brought on by the workplace.

As disruptive as the pandemic was to lives and businesses around the world, it has also pushed many companies to try new work structures for day-to-day business.

It has proved remote working as a viable alternative to showing up at the office. It has also opened up conversation a little about the way work affects mental health. What remains to be seen is if this spirit of change will persist after the pandemic or whether companies will return to conventional models.

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