By Kim Pedersen (Guest Blogger)
Originally, roukan.com was created in an effort to contribute to the improvement of the Japanese working environment. The reason for this is that having worked for both Japanese and Danish companies in a number of different roles I had been privy to seeing two completely different working environments and most importantly how these work environments affect a company, the workers' productivity and the workers' quality of life. I will try to describe some of the key differences between the two countries below. Please bear mind that this description obviously will include some generalizations so it will not necessarily fit nor describe all companies. That said, it does describe and compare the most common differences and I hope you find it useful.
In Denmark, there are many workers who are very happy and satisfied with their job. They are professionals and they want to make a difference for their company. Further, they are actively engaged in the company’s activities and they contribute any way they can. This also means that they may well find it necessary sometimes to express an opinion which goes against their boss's opinion if their professional knowledge tells them that it is in the interest of the company to do so. This is not only considered completely legitimate behavior, it is expected behavior in the Danish work place. This is the ethos of the Danish work environment: As a worker, you are paid to contribute to the company with all of your knowledge and you, therefore, must speak up when you have critical knowledge or information. When you do so, you will typically be respected by your co-workers and even management for sharing your honest opinions and knowledge. In general, there is a good atmosphere in the Danish work place where the interaction between employees and superiors is sound and healthy. A healthy interaction, in turn, makes it possible for the company to find critical issues in time and to develop lucrative alternatives that nobody in the management layer of the company may have thought of or previously considered. There many advantages to be gained by respecting your workers and giving them the opportunity and right to speak up as well as giving them credit for and acknowledging their contributions.
Compared to this Danish working environment, however, a lot of Japanese people tend to think that work not fun, but a necessity, a burden or duty we all bear and that we have do our best at. Of course it depends on the person you ask, but as time goes by, many Japanese tend to get settled in their present situation and think that that's just the way things are. They are very proud of their jobs, but as Westerner, sometimes you wonder, what about it is about their job that they are so proud of. Japanese companies, by and large, are known for creating “Yes-men”, meaning whatever the superior officer orders, the worker must obey and follow. The worker's professional opinion is often secondary or even totally ignored no matter the situation or the effectiveness of his opinion. This really reality can really damage a person’s pride and directly and negatively impact his degree of satisfaction with life. This dissatisfaction most often comes out on display after working hours, when Japanese workers go to an “Izakaya” (Japanese-style pub) together, and engage in shop talk and bitch sessions about their bosses. And so it goes day in and day out, month in and month out, year after year. It's a never ending story for many Japanese workers. Yet, Japanese workers seem to have accepted that this is how things work as most of them just don’t know any other way nor see any other alternatives to their present situation.
This way of working, however, does not create a healthy environment for the company as professional opinions are often suppressed in favor of the pride of "face" of the manager. Globally speaking, this is bad business but it actually still works domestically Japan, as all of the other companies are working the same way and similarly hamstrung. So in the Japanese domestic situation this kind of working environment simply lowers the workers' quality of life, lowers competitiveness and productivity across the board while it creates and maintains a continually tense atmosphere which leads to high stress levels among the employees. Unsurprisingly, such a tense atmosphere is often noticed by the firm's customers, giving the company a bad reputation as well from the customer perspective.
There are other huge differences between Japanese and Danish working environments. One of them is working hours. In Japan, it is common to have non-paid overtime, or “service overtime” (service = free in Japanese) as it is called. This is the part of your overtime work that you don’t get payment for. This would never happen in Denmark, unless you were hired for a leading position with a fairly high salary. In Japan, it is illegal to force your workers to do “service overtime”, but nevertheless it seems like everybody is doing it. Of the responses we have gotten so far at roukan.com, there are many Japanese claiming that they have more than 100 hours of non-paid or “service overtime” each month! That averages out to more than 3 hours a day and that assumes you worked Saturday and Sunday, too. And please keep in mind, this is for the ordinary workers and staff not for executives holding high ranking positions. When we look for the reasons why they work so much overtime every day, we usually find that it is not because they are unproductive but that they cannot go home before their superior officer goes home or, for instance, because they are ordered to do much more work than can be done within the time frame of their normal working hours. Such a long , grueling working day makes you tired the next day, too, before you even arrive at your work place. It further decreases the workplace productivity (and often quality) creating even more overtime which turns into a vicious cycle. When you then consider that the overtime work is couple with long commuting times, often an hour or more (each way) on an overcrowded train where most are forced to stand, then you understand that for many Japanese, life can be pretty tough.
As a comparison, in Denmark nobody really works overtime without getting properly paid as Danish unions see to that. Moreover, working frequent overtime means that you receive a higher payment at the end of the month. And if you work on Saturdays and Sundays your payment can be doubled as compensation for having less quality time with your family. So if you work one Saturday, you might in return be able to take two days off later. No wonder then that the life satisfaction degree is extremely high in Denmark while it is very low in Japan. In fact, comparing the two countries work-life balance and life satisfaction indices says it all.
In Denmark, workers are usually expected to do their job within their working hours. This means that they are usually more focused on getting the job done in time, so that they can go home at 5 o’clock or whenever they normally return home. After work, Danes go home and spend time with family and friends where as Japanese typically stay at the office late, work a bit and talk to colleagues and then go to an izakaya, coming home very late and having very little time to spend with their families. It is not uncommon for many Japanese to miss most of their children’s upbringing. What a difference!
It's actually easy for Japan to change this practice, but they are often stuck in the way they have always done things and can’t get out of it. It is a vicious cycle built on and bound by tradition.
Japan, by the way, is one of few countries in reporting separate statistics of karoshi (過労死), which literally means death-by-overwork (ka = over, rou = work, shi = death).
I think it is fair to state that the employer has a humane obligation to choose a way of leading the company which is not directly responsible for creating unhappy employees or maybe even causing death or disablement. This raises a question about ethics and morale. However, if it's obvious that improving the working environment does not necessarily cost the company a fortune, and that an improved working environment also leads to higher productivity and thus higher profits, then there would seem to be no reasons for not improving the working environment.
The interesting thing is that if you compare Japanese and Danish workers, Danish workers are far more efficient and productive than Japanese workers. Japanese workers have the worst possible working environment while also being far less productive than the Danish workers who in turn have one of the best working environments in the world. And this is the whole purpose related to working environment -- to find the right balance between working environment, cost and profit and the workers' satisfaction with both work and life.
In my next article, I will go deeper into which areas in a company that can easily be improved without costing the company anything and yet have the potential of considerably improving productivity.