Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Fitter, Happier, More Productive: How Working Less Could Help You Achieve More

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Fitter, Happier, More Productive: How Working Less Could Help You Achieve More

Article excerpt

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 loo 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".

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."

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. …

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