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1 March 2017updated 02 Sep 2021 2:38pm

How working less could help you achieve more

A Japanese lesson in the paradox of productivity.

By Joji Sakurai

In Japan, the virtues of konjou and gaman – grit and endurance – have long been considered crucial for success. But the death of a star worker at the nation’s biggest advertising agency has prompted a rethink of a culture of overwork that commonly subjects employees to more than 100 hours of overtime per month.

The Japanese government is now seeking to pass legislation to limit overtime. The English-speaking world is waking up to the problems of overwork, too. A new book – Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley consultant and visiting scholar at Stanford University – argues that by working less you can accomplish more.

Around the world, the conventional wisdom that working longer hours leads to superior results is being challenged. “Even in today’s 24/7, always-on world,” Pang writes, “we can learn how to blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative and happier.”

Matsuri Takahashi was gifted, attractive and successful. Fresh out of Tokyo University, she landed a job at the Dentsu advertising agency and seemed on course for a life on the corporate fast track. Yet it wasn’t long before Takahashi, crushed by long office hours, began posting about her struggles on Twitter. “My body is trembling . . . I just can’t do this,” she wrote, following up with: “I have lost all feeling except the desire to sleep.”

On Christmas Day 2015, the 24-year-old fell to her death from the third storey of her company’s dormitory building. Labour standards officials recorded the cause as karoshi – or “death by overwork”.

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Takahashi’s case resonated in Japan, a country that was already grappling with statistics showing chronic overtime to be the norm. More than a year later, barely a day goes by without a TV chat show inviting scholars and celebrities to brainstorm ways to get Japanese people to work less.

The implications of this culture of overwork go beyond workers’ sanity. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to cap overtime at a yearly average of 60 hours a month – in a labour reform programme expected to be adopted this year – envisions higher productivity as a benefit. Meanwhile, some corporations are beginning to ask an unusual (even heretical) question for hard-working Japan: can taking things easier be a recipe for success?

There are some surprising answers to this in Pang’s book. The problems that Japan faces may sound extreme, but they are in no way unique, viewed alongside Western business environments where, as Pang writes, “The proliferation of mobile and digital tools . . . [lets] you work anywhere and any time, [lets] work follow you everywhere.”

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Pang argues that rest is a crucial source of creative vigour and that slogging through workplace fatigue – a mantra in Japan and the United States alike – leads not only to burnout but inferior performance. “Rest is not work’s adversary,” he writes. “Rest is work’s partner.”

Pang cites an array of academic studies and creative luminaries to support his argument. What did Charles Darwin, Ingmar Bergman, Charles Dickens and Henri Poincaré have in common? Four hours: roughly the length of time they felt they could productively devote to work in a single day. This is not to say that nothing happens outside those four hours. Pang believes that our best work is done, unconsciously, when we are at rest – while walking in the woods, gazing out of the window, listening to Bach and, above all, sleeping.

In Japan, no corporation has yet proposed a four-hour workday (or encouraged its employees to take long walks to boost performance), but a handful are reporting intriguing results that support Pang’s thesis. Last October, Nidec Corporation, a motor manufacturer, cited a significant reduction in overtime as an important factor in its record profit projections. Nidec banned working outside office hours without a manager’s permission and slashed overtime by 30 per cent without affecting productivity. This year, the corporation went further, announcing that it will invest more than $880m to eliminate overtime by 2020.

Meanwhile, the IT company SCSK has devised a novel solution to the problem of excess office hours: paying workers extra for not taking overtime. Since launching its “healthy management” strategy in 2012, SCSK has succeeded in reducing average daily overtime to roughly half an hour a day (down nearly threefold), while enjoying higher profits every year.

“When you focus on your workers’ health,” the firm’s former chairman, Nobuhide Nakaido, told the Japanese media, “it’s going to result in better work.”

Japan has enjoyed spectacular business success by embracing a philosophy of gritting one’s teeth and putting up with crushing workloads. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that many of the country’s achievements may have come in spite of a culture of overwork, not because of it. If Pang’s ideas are right, Japan’s admirable cult of quality – even perfectionism – could find greater opportunities to flourish without the inspiration-destroying effects of excessive labour.

Rest condemns neither hard work nor perfectionism, but rather celebrates both. The book advises us to work hard but in short bursts, with opportunities for recuperation, in order to bring out the best that we can achieve.

“I don’t want to deny the importance of work in our lives,” Pang writes. “The challenge we face when learning to rest better is not to avoid work but to discover how to create a better fit between our work and our rest.” l

This article appears in the 22 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit