Less overtime for some workers means more for others if no one’s changing how much total work needs to be done.

One of the biggest buzzwords in Japanese business these days is hatarakikata kaikaku, or “workstyle reforms.” After generations of grinding down rank-and-file workers, Japanese companies and legislators are finally starting to rethink the way the country does business.

In a recent survey by Japanese medical equipment manufacturer Cell Power, 65.2 percent of the 1,122 middle managers who were polled said that workstyle reforms have been progressing at their companies. When asked what sort of reforms had taken place, the top response was “overtime limits” (71 percent), followed by “encouraging workers to use their paid vacation days” (69.7 percent).

Those are both positive things to see happening, since rampant overwork has an extremely negative effect on the physical and mental well-being of workers in Japan. However, there’s a dark lining to this silver cloud. The survey next asked the middle managers how their companies’ workplace reforms have affected their own workloads, and the majority, 58.6 percent, said they’ve actually been doing more work as a result of the reforms (40.6 percent reporting an increased workload, and 18 percent a severely increased one).

While managers generally don’t make for as sympathetic of figures as their subordinates, it’s worth keeping in mind that the survey participants were specifically middle managers. They’re not owners or CEOs for whom company profits flow directly into their bank accounts. They’re employees, and while they may have climbed a rung or two up from the bottom, they’re still under pressure to meet their bosses’ expectations, and so many of them now feel compelled to take on the work left over as a result of other employees’ reduced responsibilities. “With such strict limits on the amount of overtime workers can do, I’m overwhelmed trying to get everything done that I need to during the course of a day,” said one manager, a woman in her 20s. “In order to let my subordinates go home without doing overtime, I’m more frequently coming in early and doing overtime instead,” reported a male 50-something respondent.

The problem appears to be that so far, many companies have been trying to enact their workstyle reforms simply by capping what can be asked/expected of individual rank-and-file workers, without adjusting the total amount of work they want done. This then shifts the load onto middle managers, who lack the newly installed protections their subordinates have, and also the clout upper executives wield to mandate how much total work should be getting done.

But of course, business is a competitive thing, and simply saying “Let’s just do less work” isn’t generally something that makes for a stable company or secure jobs for employees at any rank in the organization. Because of that, it would seem that the solution to the problem lies in either hiring more workers or increasing the productivity of the workers the company already has.

However, Japanese companies tend to be extremely cautious about hiring more workers than they’re sure they’ll need for the long-term future, which is why even when the economy goes into a recession, Japanese employers are far less prone to laying off large numbers of employees than companies in many other countries. That would leave increasing productivity as the most logical solution, but that’s going to take some difficult attitude adjustments as well, since for the last hundred years or so the knee-jerk response to economic challenges in Japan has been “Let’s just have everyone do a bunch of overtime!”

On the bright side, for all the difficulties it’s causing them personally, the majority of the surveyed managers still think workstyle reforms are a good thing. 68.4 percent said they believe they’re having a positive effect on their workplaces, and hopefully those benefits will start making their lives better too.

Source: PR Times
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