A Japanese marketing firm recently offered non-smokers extra time off. Is this a smart move, or micromanagement at its worst?
Piala, a Japanese marketing firm based in a Tokyo high-rise, made headlines recently after it decided to give non-smoking employees an extra six holiday days a year.
The decision came about after non-smokers griped over the 15-minute breaks that smokers (about a third of the workforce) were taking throughout the day. Piala is on the 29th floor of the building and the designated smoking area is in the basement, meaning employees would spend considerable amounts of time going up and down.
The logic of rewarding non-smokers was to provide a non-punitive measure to dissuade smoking as well as an alternative to more closely monitoring the time employees spend at their desks. The measure attracted significant interest, with some even wondering whether similar policies should be adopted in Ireland.
Japanese workplace culture
It’s debatable, however, whether this measure could be called an alternative to micromanaging.
Japan has never had the greatest reputation when it comes to employee welfare, but its workplace culture was subject to particular scrutiny and criticism last month when a Japanese woman died from overwork after logging 159 hours of overtime in one month.
Her death was not necessarily anomalous, either. Japan has a term for overwork – karōshi – which was first invented in 1978 to refer to increasing numbers of employees suffering strokes or heart attacks attributed to working long hours, or those who die by suicide as a result of the stress and burnout from excessive amounts of overtime.
The first white paper on karōshi in Japan was published in 2016, and it concluded that as much as 20pc of the Japanese workforce do enough overtime that they risk death.
Despite numerous calls by both Japanese and international authorities for employers to fix the issue of overworking in their organisations, the problem persists.
While giving employees extra time off ostensibly puts Piala ahead of the curve in comparison with other Japanese employers, the company is arguably feeding into the fixation on constant productivity, which can lead to the urge to overwork.
Is this an example of micromanaging?
Although the decision made by Piala was a result of complaints from non-smoker employees, one wonders if what the company is doing could be considered micromanaging.
Incentivising employees not to smoke is arguably invasive on Piala’s part. Striving to improve employee health is admirable but, in reality, whether someone smokes or not is none of their employer’s business.
Piala’s decision to give non-smokers extra time was not set out to improve employer health. It was undertaken in response to complaints from non-smoker employees, and the extra days serve to compensate the time smokers spend popping out for a cigarette.
This is the core of the issue, really. While it’s possible that some employees could be taking multiple smoke breaks amounting to a large chunk out of the day, these breaks should be counted into the general ebb and flow of productivity that employers should expect from their employees.
Of course, every employer wants maximum productivity, but not accepting that people aren’t going to be 100pc productive every hour of the day is indicative of an unhealthy and borderline dehumanising attitude towards employees.
Furthermore, it’s possible that these Japanese employees were talking about work while they went down for their smoke breaks, which arguably means that the time smoking was also time spent working.
The tide of employee culture is beginning to turn and, increasingly, employers are realising that rigidity in scheduling does not lead to better productivity.
If anything, affording employees options such as remote working and flexitime will not only make employees happier, but it is also reflective of the reality of work in the digital age.
Employees don’t necessarily stick to rigid schedules. They do overtime, they eat their lunches at their desks, they may even think about work at home or respond to an email while on a day off. The working day often bleeds outside the edges.
Allowing employees flexible holiday schedules is a policy that appreciates how hard employees work. Policies that respond to even small losses to productivity, such as the one Piala put in place, tacitly endorse an attitude that sees employers counting every unproductive second in an employee’s day.
This cannot be an attitude that is supported. At the heart of this policy is the type of thinking that has put employee welfare at risk in Japan for years, and will continue to do so for years to come if drastic measures are not taken to combat it.