Suicide of employee who worked 105 hours of overtime a month prompts Japan advertising firm Dentsu to set limit

The logo of Dentsu Co seen at the entrance of the company's headquarters in Tokyo.
The logo of Dentsu Co seen at the entrance of the company's headquarters in Tokyo.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - It's called "karoshi" or death from overwork.

The suicide of a woman who worked excessive hours at Japan's biggest advertising agency has prompted the company to lower the amount of overtime employees can book.

From November, workers at Dentsu Inc won't be able to log more than 65 hours of overtime a month - down from the current limit of 70, company spokesman Shusaku Kannan said on Tuesday (Oct 18).

Tokyo's Labour Standard Inspection Office determined that overwork pushed 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi to take her own life after she suffered a mental breakdown, local media said. Ms Takahashi worked more than 105 extra hours in a single month, the Asahi newspaper reported.

Dentsu's decision comes as the government explores policies to improve the nation's working practices. A government-backed panel began meeting last month to tackle issues ranging from excessive overtime, low salaries of part-time workers and a stagnant female workforce.

"Workplace reform isn't just a societal issue, it's an economic one as well," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo on Sept 27 at the first panel meeting. "If we revise overtime rules, we will improve work life balance, making it easier for employees - including women and the elderly - to work."

Nearly a quarter of Japan's companies reported some workers logging more than 80 hours of overtime a month, according to a Labour Ministry survey of more than 1,700 firms last fiscal year. About 21 per cent of employees worked more than 49 hours a week, compared to 16 per cent in the US, 12.5 per cent in the UK and 32 per cent in South Korea, the ministry said in a paper on "karoshi", or death from overwork.

"We can change this way of working in Japan," said Professor Naohiro Yashiro  of the Faculty of Global Business at Showa Women's University in Tokyo. "If we set proper rules it is not impossible for the Japanese to work in the same way as the Europeans."

Dentsu is the latest company to make a concerted effort to limit overtime. Fifty firms, including Daiwa Securities Group and Seven & I Holdings, have signed a pact to end excessive work hours.

Yahoo Japan Corp is considering the implementation of a four-day working week, and from October it began covering commuting expenses by bullet train - subsidising travel by up to 150,000 yen (S$2,003) a month, according to the Nikkei newspaper.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has also recently mandated that staff in government offices must go home by 8pm.

Even as Japan is looking to bring in more overseas workers to bolster the shrinking workforce, the Labour Ministry this week recognised the 2014 heart failure of a 27-year-old Filipino trainee in Gifu prefecture as a death caused by overwork. He had logged up to 122.5 hours of overtime in one month, according to local media reports.