Japanese ministry staff leading fight against death from overwork endure punishing overtime

Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare employees are often required to stay late due to long sessions in parliament

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2018, 3:50pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2018, 4:39pm

The latest Rei Nakagawa has had to stay at her desk in the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in Tokyo was half-past midnight, but she definitely considers herself lucky because she is usually able to turn off her computer before 7pm.

More than one in four of her colleagues, however, do not leave the ministry in the Kasumigaseki district of the city before 11pm, a new study has revealed, which is ironic given that it is at the forefront of the government’s campaign to eliminate the problem of “karoshi” – or death from overwork.

“The summer is the quietest time of the year because the Diet is in recess and the work that we have to do is largely routine, which is not so bad because it means we can largely stick to our normal working hours of 9.15am until 6.15pm,” she said. “But when the Diet is in session and a cabinet meeting goes on late, generally speaking all the people in the ministry have to wait until it ends in case the ministers need information.”

Those meetings regularly extend late into the evening and at certain times of the year, such as in the run-up to the announcement of the budget, can easily run over into the following day.

“It all depends on how many questions we get from the cabinet,” Nakagawa admitted.

A study by labour organisations representing civil servants in ministries in Kasumigaseki has identified bureaucrats at the health ministry as putting in the longest hours of all government officials.

Questioned about their working hours, 27 per cent of the ministry’s staff said they usually left work at 11pm or later.

Health ministry employees are also putting in more overtime than most of their counterparts elsewhere in district, with 19.2 per cent saying they work 80 hours or more of overtime a month, the amount recognised by the government as the threshold that can cause ill-health and – in extreme cases – death.

Only staff at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry work more overtime, with 19.6 per cent of employees saying they are required to do more than 80 hours each month. The figures underline just how hard it is proving to alter attitudes towards work.

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In June, both houses of the Diet approved a package of bills designed to dramatically overhaul Japan’s working culture and improve employees’ work-life balance.

The bills were drawn up in response to the growing problem of “karoshi”, with the first ever government investigation into the scale of the problem reporting in October 2016 that staff at 12 per cent of corporations were putting in more than 100 hours of overtime a month, with a further 23 per cent working 80 overtime hours each month. And experts warned at the time that the true figure was likely to be even higher, as only 1,743 of the 10,000 companies invited to take part in the inquiry replied.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare recognised that 93 suicides and suicide attempts in the 2015 financial year were caused by overwork, allowing dependents to claim compensation. That figure is at odds with police statistics, however, which show that 2,159 suicides were attributable to overwork that year.

The ministry has been tasked by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with ensuring that companies comply with new guidelines on overtime, which are designed to encourage people to leave work earlier and use all their paid holidays.

One of the pillars of the new laws is a mandatory cap on overtime at 45 hours per month and an absolute cap of 100 hours a month at “busy periods” of the year.

It is not clear who is policing overtime hours at the health ministry, but another question put to civil servants asked whether they felt at risk of “karoshi”. More than 11 per cent said they were already on the brink.