One in five employees in Japan risk death from overwork

Today marks the first Friday of the Japanese government-backed ‘Premium Friday’ campaign, which is aimed at reducing suicide rates.

Japan Times reports that 130 firms across Japan are participating in ‘Premium Friday’ – a campaign that encourages employees to “leave work early on the last Friday of each month”.

According to the Guardian, the initiative is part of a wider attempt by the government to address the long hours employees are expected to work. In October 2016, a government survey revealed that one in five employees in Japan risk death from overwork, AKA ‘karoshi’.

Japan Times adds that the initiative is also aimed to boost weak consumer spending in Japan in order to halt the country’s persistent deflation. ‘Premium Friday’ allows workers to leave work early by taking paid hours off or using a flexitime program.

However, whilst the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry confirmed that at least 130 firms planned to participate in ‘Premium Friday’, it has not yet gathered information about how early workers were allowed to leave.

Major companies participating in the campaign include SoftBank Group, Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Sumitomo Corp., Suntory Holdings Ltd. and Shimizu Corp.

Marketing research firm Intage Inc’s survey revealed that only 2.5% of respondents said their employers planned on encouraging employees to leave early on the last Friday of each month. The survey, carried out earlier this month, covered 6750 full-time workers in their 20s and 50s in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures.

“It will take time for Premium Friday to take root,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference. “It’s extremely important for both the government and the private sector to create an atmosphere where workers can leave early”.

To lead by example, Prime Minister Shinzo Abo left his office early for a Zen meditation session at a Tokyo temple at 3:30 p.m.

“It is hoped that this effort will be a trigger to help change the deflation mindset,” Suga said.

3930 firms and organisations have registered to use the official logo designed by the ‘Premium Friday’ committee to capitalise on the campaign’s call for consumers to spend more.

However, some economists and firms remain skeptical. SMBC Nikko Securities Inc said the campaign may have contradictory effects. It claimed that the campaign will boost GDP in terms of consumption and productivity but will also reduce GDP by reducing working hours. The firm added that the increase in consumption alone is estimated to boost GDP by ¥63.5 billion a year.

Previous attempts to reduce suicide by overwork include Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike’s initiative to order workers to leave their desks by 8pm. The governor said that those who work past 8pm will be subject to “strict monitoring”.

Unethical employers have been criticised for running a “bait-and-switch” system when hiring – the job position attracts candidates by its advertised sensible work hours, but once the candidate is successful, irregular contract hours are implemented.

Japanese society also recently began embracing ‘inemuri’ – aka napping in public – to reduce pressures from work.