Japanese society has prescribed and developed a culture of sacrificing sleep in exchange for something that is considered much more useful. For students, they are taught that the more you study and the less time you put in sleeping, the better you will perform at school. For employees, sleeping time is considered a lot less important than working hours.
On a positive note, the country is starting to recognize the adverse effects of sleep deficit or “sleep debt,” although whether the majority of the Japanese businesses see it as a severe problem is what needs to be addressed still remains to be seen.
One company has taken notice, though, and is taking audacious steps to address the problem. An upscale wedding-planning boutique based in Tokyo, called “Crazy”, has resolved to reward its employees if they get enough sleep and can prove it. According to the new policy, “Crazy” employees will be entitled to a ¥64,000 annual bonus, which amounts to around US$562 a year, if they can extend their sleep to at least six hours on all weekday nights.
This decision of the Tokyo-based company to incentivize increased sleeping hours of its employees is generally considered as a bold move and will be an acid test to see if extra sleep can translate to an upsurge in productivity. Crazy’s chief executive, Kazuhiko Moriyama, who initiated and fashioned the guidelines for the new strategy, has said that this policy should become the new standard for all Japanese companies as well.
“We want to show that companies of all types need to be better,” he says. “We are a creative industry and we are creating a new business standard.”
Moriyama has stated his belief that abusing a worker’s right to sleep will ultimately lead to a weaker Japan; a claim that sounds all the more jarring, given the fact that his company operates within the more placid sector of Japan’s service industry. Nevertheless, Moriyama says that the nature of his business should not be pertinent to what he is calling out for.
Moriyama adds that his idea to reward employees for sleeping more was greatly influenced by the rise of new, affordable technology that makes it more accessible and convenient for use by interested parties. For example, smartphone apps can now be used to monitor and analyze employees’ fatigue levels with more accuracy than what can be ascertained from old-school methods.
Additional information can be gained via sensors installed in the mattresses and analyzed by another app, although Crazy employees will be given the discretion of whether they will allow this additional method of monitoring their sleeping habits.
As a matter of fact, some Japanese companies have started getting in on the act. Manufacturers of medical devices, including Teijin, have recognized the necessity of addressing sleep debt as an emerging business opportunity, and have already started making specialized devices for monitoring sleeping habits. These devices are also able to upload the accumulated data to company management so they, in turn, can infer which of their employees need more rest.
A September report by Morgan Stanley, a world-renowned financial services company, has stated that several of the up-and-coming technology companies in Japan were built around a business model that focused on an expectation of increasing pressure on Japanese businesses to create improved policies for the well-being of employees. The Morgan-Stanley report added that this pressure would come from a shrinking workforce that would force companies to compete fiercely for talent.
Junya Tanimoto, an owner of one of the companies mentioned in the report, has seen the effects of sleep debt on his former coworkers’ health and performance and says that there are plenty of similar cases across Japan, but no adequate services to confront the issue. The efforts to monitor the sleeping habits of employees have also developed an increasingly-accurate barometer that exposes more extensive problems within a company, he adds.
These entrepreneurs are now aware of the dangerous effects of what was Japan’s traditional attitude towards sleep; the same attitude that has long been the justification for the culture that has evolved within the Japanese workplace. In that culture, employees and workers are forced to plough away at work even after their prescribed work hours. These hours are usually undeclared and therefore ends up as unpaid overtime.
In a belated move, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has officially recognized these issues and published a report back in 2014 aiming to provide “guidance” to Japanese businesses regarding the benefits of sleep. Some of the data in that report were compiled from surveys that were administered more than ten years ago, but still described disturbing information relevant to Japanese sleeping habits.
According to Jun Kohyama, a neurologist in the Japanese Society of Sleep Research, these findings should have attracted more attention and more action. “Japanese people have a mentality that working hard, sacrificing sleeping hours is a good thing,” he said, “but without enough sleeping hours, your brain cannot function well. I’m deeply concerned that nowadays Japanese people are less able to make a rational judgment because of sleep shortage.”