Panasonic chooses a four-day work week
by Guido Alberto Casanova

For company CEO, “We must support the wellbeing of each employee”. With COVID-19, smart-working has expanded in Japan. The new trend is running up against a workplace culture that monopolises employees’ attention making it hard for them to separate work and personal life.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Panasonic  announced its intention to offer its employees in Japan a four-day working week.

According to the company’s CEO Yuki Kusumi, “We must support the wellbeing of each employee” to enable them to pursue their personal interests.

A 2020 government study found that two days off per week is still uncommon in Japan with only 8 per cent of Japanese companies offering this option.

The decision by the manufacturing conglomerate follows a rapidly growing trend among companies, from pharmaceuticals and finance to information technology.

There are many reasons behind it. On the one hand, some businesses have decided to give their employees more personal time to develop new skills that can then be used in the company; on the other, a shorter week allows employees to devote more time to their families.

Some companies have also decided to use the four-day week as a strategy to recruit the best and brightest available in the job market.

Despite its reputation for high efficiency, Japan ranks last among G7 countries in terms of labour productivity as calculated by GDP per hour worked.

It is no accident that the economic and fiscal policy plan approved by the Japanese government in June 2021 includes provisions to encourage four-day weeks, in the belief that it is possible to work less and better.

The issue is already on the agenda of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party; and as such, it could give further impetus to the trend.

The latter has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed many work habits deeply rooted in Japan.

One example is the famous happy hour after work among employees, a practice long considered essential to develop an esprit-de -corps within a business. Since the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, a majority of workers found it unnecessary for the first time, this according to a Kyodo News poll released last November.

As a result, work from home, almost absent before the pandemic, is now starting to be accepted as the norm; in some cases, employers encourage it:

Yahoo Japan, for example, told its employees (90 per cent of whom now work remotely) that they are no longer required to work from the company offices; for those who need to come in, the company will allocate a commute budget.

Although Japan's rigid work culture is changing, many obstacles still exist and the changes caused by COVID-19 may not last.

For decades, the way work was organised favoured a close relationship between employees and their company; even today many young people find it hard to separate professional and personal life.

This is especially the case when wages are directly proportional to the number of hours worked; many workers rightly fear that a shorter work week will mean fewer earnings.

The issue, however, is now on the table. Japan’s labour market, still shaken by a high number of work-related fatalities, is just now starting to come to terms with this reality, even if finding a new balance appears to be a very distant goal.