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Work Hours — How Much is Enough?

I just returned from Japan, where one of the major labor issues is “karoshi,” which means “death by overwork.” The Japanese Labor Department has made findings against companies whose workers either died from health issues or from suicide due to overwork. Apparently, some companies in Japan require employees to work as much as 100 hours of overtime in a month in addition to the normal 40-hour work weeks.

Although the issues in Japan are a somewhat extreme example, employers everywhere should take a lesson from this experience. In Japan, the culture often dissuades employees from quitting despite overwork, but that is not necessarily the case in the rest of the world. In the United States, for example, companies should be worried about the effects that overwork has on employees’ retention and productivity — many employees will quit before it begins affecting their physical or mental health.

Two industries in the U.S. that could stand to give this some thought are the investment banking and the medical professions. While some in these professions still abide by the principle that trial by fire (and extremely long work hours) is a necessary process, HR representatives in these professions need to consider what the cost is to the organization when good employees leave under such circumstances. It is certainly an issue that is being considered in my own profession — the practice of law.

The Japanese government is struggling with how to address the issue of karoshi and its primary cause, workplace culture. Every HR manager should likewise consider the workplace culture of their company and the cost of losing good employees because of uncontrolled hours. You do not want to hear about it for the first time in exit interviews. Mentoring programs could go a long way to open up discussions earlier. The cost of training new hires necessitated by out of control attrition can be quantified, and HR can use that data to convince the company’s managers that an overly demanding culture is not cost effective. It may go against the culture of the company and the industry in which it operates, but raising these issues in an effective and data-driven way is the type of value-add that can justify why there is an HR department to begin with.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.