Even before the pandemic, Japanese employees only took around half of their paid leave. I remember 30 years’ ago the company union of my Japanese workplace campaigning every year to get its members to take more than the 10 or 11 days holiday a year they would take out of the 24 or so they were due. In the USA around 70% of paid leave is taken and in Europe it’s closer to 100%.
Professor Hajime Ota of Doshisha University points out that this is partly because in many Western countries, companies must compensate employees for holidays not taken or are required to make employees take holidays – in the financial services industry in the UK for example. Japan is also facing a labour shortage, so people feel under pressure to do overtime instead.
A 2010 survey by the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training found that the top reasons for not taking paid leave were: “because it would cause problems for my co-workers”, “because other employees are not taking their annual leave” and “my boss is not happy about me taking leave”. Similarly, a 2005 survey found that people were working overtime because “my boss and co-workers are doing overtime” and “it is difficult to leave the office if others are still working.” So it is basically social pressures – face time overtime – that are at the root of this.
Overtime pay is lower in Japan than elsewhere too – 25% of normal pay as compared to 50% or more in Europe or the USA. Also many Japanese employees are doing “service overtime” where they are not getting paid at all, even though this is supposedly illegal.
Professor Ota says that this shows Japanese employees want the approval of their co-workers and boss rather than extra money for their overtime. People who take all their leave and only work their set hours are looked askance at. So it is understandable that working from home and flexible working, workations and so on are not popular in Japan – unless all employees take it up.
As I have frequently said, and Professor Ota confirms, in many Japanese workplaces there are no clear job descriptions, so it is difficult to evaluate individual performance objectively. The feelings and emotions of the evaluator tend to be more influential. A 2001 survey of 1,406 white collar workers in Japanese and Western companies found that 75% of Western respondents said that they would not give softer evaluations to subordinates just because they were pleasant to work with whereas 29% of Japanese respondents said they would not. Conversely 6% of Western respondents said they may give a softer evaluation to a pleasant subordinate and 20% of Japanese respondents said they would.
Western respondents may well be fooling themselves that they are capable of such objectivity, and Japanese respondents are being more honest. Professor Ota also puts it down to the importance of the “in-group” in Japanese workplaces, and therefore the need to be “close” to your boss in all senses. But this concern that working from home impacts promotion negatively is not confined to Japan – as many recent articles and surveys publicised in the Western media confirm.
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