You don’t gotta go home, but you can’t stay here.
Advertising and PR agency Dentsu is one of Japan’s most successful business organizations, and so a position with the company is considered a prize plum among employment seekers. But advertising is an intensely competitive, results-driven industry in any economy, let alone hard-working-to-a-fault Japan, where the pressure that comes with a high-flying career can quickly become too much for some to bear.
Such was the case with Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old woman working for Dentsu who committed suicide last December, with the emotional and mental difficulties of dealing with her workload being cited as factors in her death. As part of Dentsu’s subsequent efforts to improve its working conditions, this month the company has instituted a new policy in order to reduce the amount of overtime done by employees.
As of October 24, once 10 p.m. rolls around, it’s lights out at the 48-floor Tokyo skyscraper that houses Dentsu’s corporate
headquarters. While working until 10 p.m. still sounds like an incredibly grueling schedule, it’s not unusual for some Japanese office workers to still be at their desks well past that time, and by turning off the lights, Dentsu is sending the message that even if certain employees are committed to throwing themselves into their work, the company would rather they go home for the night.
▼ Dentsu’s corporate headquarters in Tokyo’s Shiodome district
Dentsu has instructed its regional offices around Japan to follow suit, ordering them to switch off the lights at 10 p.m. and keep them off until at least 5 a.m. the next morning. Again, shutting down the workplace for seven hours, when many experts say the human body needs eight hours of sleep a night, may seem like the bare minimum of what a responsible employer should do, but Dentsu’s codified stance on the matter is unusual among first-tier corporations in Japan. In addition, on November 1 Dentsu will be readjusting its maximum per-employee overtime limits, trimming the upper limit from 70 hours per month down to 65.
Ideally, these benignly motivated changes will help to alleviate the pressure for employees to perform unhealthful amounts of work. However, the initiatives will only be effective if they’re coupled with reasonable workload assignments from managers. Without that second factor, a mandatory lights-out and reduced overtime allowance could actually end up making the situation worse by causing employees to feel like they have to work even faster than before and/or take work home with them. Dentsu’s heart seems to be in the right place, with a company representative saying “We are putting the utmost efforts into improving our working environment for the sake of employee health and legal compliance,” so hopefully the company will be able to properly implement its new polices.