February 24, 2017 12:26 pm
Updated: February 24, 2017 12:54 pm

Japan attempts to curb ‘death by overwork’ with Premium Friday

WATCH ABOVE: Japan introduces 'Premium Friday' in effort to give workers better work-life balance

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Workers in Japan are being told to cut out early as the country rolls out its new Premium Friday initiative.

Companies are encouraged to let staff leave at 3 pm on the last Friday of every month. The hopes are the happy staffers will go out, have fun — and spend money.

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It’s an effort to boost the economy by way of consumer spending, have families spend more time together, and give workers a break.

Karoshi, meaning death by overwork, is rampant in the country. Last spring, the country counted a record number of compensation claims related to death from overwork.

A cardiovascular-related death is recognized as karoshi when an employee has worked more than 100 hours of overtime in a month, or has worked more than 80 hours of overtime in two or more consecutive months in the previous six.

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A suicide qualifies as karoshi if a person has worked 160 hours of overtime in a month, or more than 100 hours of overtime in three consecutive months.

In the year ending March 2015, Japan recorded 1,456 deaths by karoshi. But the government is hesitant to recognize karoshi deaths, Hiroshi Kawahito, secretary general of the National Defense Counsel for Victims of karoshi told Reuters, and the number is likely as much as 10 times higher.

“The real problem is reducing working hours, and the government is not doing enough,” Kawahito said.

Workers at one in four companies are at risk of karoshi, a government report stated last fall.

Some high-profile deaths have put Japan’s work culture and regulations under the microscope. In April 2014, a 27-year-old died of heart failure after working 122.5 hours of overtime per month.

Matsuri Takahashi, 24, committed suicide on Christmas Day, 2015. It was later revealed the advertising firm employee had been forced to work more than 100 hours of overtime for months on end, slept as little as two hours per night, and was told to lie about her work hours.

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As details of Takahashi’s death made headlines around the world, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered a panel to examine the country’s epidemic of excessive overtime and low pay, Bloomberg reported.

Giving workers a few hours off once a month is unlikely to make much of an impact economically, said Rui Castro, professor of economics at Western University, in an email to Global News. But it could boost morale.

“If this were to work in a significant way, then it would be because generating a focal point (“last Friday of the month off early”) actually increases labor productivity in the economy,” Castro said.

“As a result, this could indeed generate more production, spending, and time with the family.”

Compliance with Premium Friday so far appears to be low — one survey found that only 3.4 per cent of employees will get to leave early.

If it is eventually embraced by employers, it could boost the economy to the tune of 63.5 billion yen (C$740 million) annually, according to SMBC Nikko Securities Inc.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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