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Coronavirus: Japan’s employees are working from home, but stress has followed them

With more Japanese people working from home during the state of emergency implemented to stem the spread of coronavirus infections, the social and economic benefits as well as the downsides are becoming clearer, with an analyst suggesting there are already signs of a shift in the way in which people are working.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on companies across the nation to find ways to let more employees work remotely, after he declared a state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka and six neighbouring prefectures on April 7, and set a target of 70 per cent fewer commuters.

While there was a clear decline in the number of people using public transport late last week, it fell far short of the 70 per cent reduction. Numbers were down around 40 per cent in Yokohama and parts of Osaka, but only down 15 per cent in central Kobe and a mere 7.7 per cent in the Urawa district of Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

Abe made his disappointment clear. “Even it is absolutely necessary to go to work, the number of workers should be reduced by at least 70 per cent,” he told the coronavirus task force meeting over the weekend.

Shino Naito, a senior researcher at the Japan Institute for Labour Policy, said it may take a little time for companies to get to grips with the concept of letting staff work remotely, but they are likely to embrace the idea once they see the positives.

“There are many benefits for companies, primarily involving reduced costs,” she said, pointing out that firms will no longer be required to pay employees’ travel expenses, while a far smaller number of staff in a company headquarters means expensive physical space is no longer needed.

“Traditionally, Japanese companies have considered ‘work’ to be something that only happened when their employees were physically in the building and that workers should put in long hours and lots of overtime,” she said.

“But that situation has changed, we are in a special situation, and they have begun to notice that employees still fulfil their duties without being in the office, if the systems are in place.”

Naito added that working from home will assist disabled people, those caring for elderly members of their families or children, and people living in remote parts of the country. That, in turn, helps solve some of the problems associated with the nation’s shrinking workforce and ageing population.

Keisuke Obata, 49, who works for a subsidiary of the Mitsubishi conglomerate, has not been to his office for two weeks, and said he is very happy to be able to avoid a 90-minute journey at the start of each day.

“My commute now is to come down the stairs every morning, so I am finding that I have more energy than when I used to have to go all the way to Tokyo to start the working day,” said Obata, who lives in southern Yokohama.

“I’m also able to spend more time with my family and I have adapted the way I work so that I don’t miss meetings with colleagues or clients,” he said. “There is so much technology available now and this is why it was developed, so it is right that we use it.”

There are, however, some identifiable downsides to working from home.

A study conducted by Tokyo’s Keio University found that nearly 40 per cent of people said their mental health had been affected by teleworking, while a professor at the University of Tokyo identified a sharp increase in Twitter posts containing the Japanese words for “stressed” and “exhausted”.

The number of posts containing either of the two terms soared to 12,000 on April 7, the day Abe declared a state of emergency, up from 3,600 posts on March 20. The words “depressed” and “coronavirus fatigue” are also trending upwards.

“Despite the benefits, I am a bit worried about an increase in remote working,” Naito said.

“Japanese people tend to work hard wherever they are, but if they are working at home and there are children there, for example, then they cannot concentrate and they may think they have to work long into the night to get everything completed.

“Also, most companies just do not have a system for remote working in place, so there will be problems communicating with superiors or colleagues, and there is no support system for when a problem occurs,” she said.

“And companies tend to assess an employees’ performance based on the amount of time that they spend in the office; if that is no longer possible, how are they going to be able to determine performance?”

“Employers need to establish systems to support employees who are working remotely, including ensuring that they limit their working hours and taking measures to ensure they are not affected by mental illness,” Naito added.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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