Why are Japanese employees so reluctant to take paid leave?

More overtime or time at work (not on holiday) equals a higher chance of promotion for many Japanese employees
Despite government reforms on leave and overtime, Japanese employees continue to forego paid leave with many working excessive hours – but why?

Less than two in 10 employees in Japan are taking annual paid leave, a new study reveals.

The study by Tokyo-based HR company Staff Service found that employees in Japan are unwilling to use up their annual paid leave – with Gen X employees, those aged 43 to 52, most likely to forego booking and taking days off.

A staggering 84% of Gen X workers report not taking the employment leave owed to them, while 82% of Millennials (28-42) and 81% of Gen Z employees (aged 43-52) also report not taking leave.

The Baby Boom generation (aged 53-62) are the most likely age group to take leave,

What makes for even more difficult reading is that nearly half of those surveyed admitted to feeling “uncomfortable” when they do request time off.

While these numbers make for depressing reading, they are nothing new.

An Ipsos global survey in 2017 found Japanese employers placed last in a ranking of 27 countries on using up allotted vacation days. And even when they do take holiday, Japanese workers are the second most likely worldwide to check work messages and emails while away.

It’s not like Japanese employees get a significant number of paid leave days, with most full-time employees beginning with 10 days of paid leave a year, which increases by a day for each year they serve – up to a maximum of 20 days. However, they do get 16 public holiday days a year as part of the entitlement, compared to 11 in the US and eight in the UK.

So, why are Japanese workers so unwilling to take time off?

A staggering 84% of Gen X workers report not taking the employment leave owed to them

Meiwaku part of corporate culture

The main reason is guilt, a reflection of Japan’s long-held attitude to work ethic and devotion to the workplace.

Social pressure and a concern to avoid causing meiwaku (inconvenience or bother) to others – colleagues and clients – often explains hesitance in taking time away from work.

Employees can feel uncomfortable about expecting colleagues to cover for them while they are on holiday. The same is true for making customers wait. Japanese culture has an extreme customer-first focus and so for employees in client-facing positions, meiwaku also comes into effect – with the belief that making a client wait is totally unacceptable.

This devotion to work is visible not only in untaken leave, but also in the excessive overtime hours worked with many employees working beyond the 40 hours over five working days limit.

A recent poll of 15,000 businesspeople in Japan by HR provider Persol Career showed that in 2022, employees worked 22.2 hours of overtime on average per month – a 1.4-hour increase on 2021, with business consultants clocking up the most overtime with an extra 37.1 hours of work.

More overtime or time at work (not on holiday) equals a higher chance of promotion for many Japanese employees.

Within elite organisations especially, it is expected that you prioritise the company – and your work – in exchange for the security of lifetime employment coupled with a high wage and promotion system.

Reforms to tackle karoshi

This commitment to work within Japan is well-documented, leading to the Japanese phenomenon of death from overwork called karoshi.

Sadly, it is still a regular fixture in Japan’s lexicon today.

Authorities linked 2,968 suicides to overwork in 2023, according to Statista, up from 2,159 in 2017.

The reluctance to take holidays, along with the wide-spread habit among employees of accumulating often unpaid overtime, has long been recognised by the Japanese government – with reforms introduced in April 2019.

The bill is a cornerstone of attempts to modernise Japan’s way of working – known as hataraki-kata kaikaku in Japanese – with amendments to eight key labour laws. Initiatives range from caps on excessive working hours (cap on overtime to 45 hours per month and a limit of 100 hours a month during busy periods) to increased flexibility, and a requirement for employees to designate at least five days off work for staff with at least 10 days of unused leave.

Several large corporations followed suit, introducing initiatives such as ‘no overtime’ Wednesdays, flexible working hours, remote and telework, and turning off the office lights at 5pm.

And from the 1 April 2023, a new law requires all employers to pay a 150% premium to employees whose overtime hours exceed 60 hours a month. 

Highlighting the government’s goal in raising rates of taken annual leave to 70% in 2020, Susumu Oda, director of the Work and Life Harmonisation Division said: “It has been recognised that gaining time off work is important to refresh employees both mentally and physically.

“This system has only been in place since April, and as it’s less than a year, it is still not clear what effect it’s had. But to create a work environment that makes it easier to obtain annual paid vacation, posters and leaflets have been prepared, and we have also carried out appeals to companies and employees to encourage time off from work.”

The reforms don’t appear to be working however and the battle to reduce overtime is defeated by the unwillingness of Japanese workers to head home from the office.



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