Calbee – leading Japan’s work-life balance agenda but why others will struggle to follow


Calbee is a famous Japanese potato  snack maker. It is also 20% owned by Pepsico which owns brands such as FritoLay which makes Doritos. Work-life balance is a dangerous game for most salarymen and women. Japanese workers often feel that their chances for promotion maybe hindered if they engineer the wrong mix of work and life. I recall my first company in Australia. It was a Japanese broker. When daylight savings season came they were frustrated because leaving the office while it was sunny outside meant they often had to spend at least another 2 hours at their desk. They felt it was shameful to go home while it was still bright. That is the sense of duty to ‘appear’ loyal even if you are not doing anything.

Such matters surrounding work/life balance have been brought to the forefront of public debate after a young 24-yo worker from advertising giant Dentsu committed suicide due to “claimed” stress related from overtime. We may not know if it was because of “other” factors. She was supposedly working 105 extra hours a month according to the company . Since November 2016, Dentsu has made it impossible for workers to clock in more than 65 hours a week, down from 70. ‘Karoshi’ (death from over work) is no rare occurrence. Part is down to inflexible working practices while the rest is driven by the internal culture of some Japanese firms which rank hours ‘dedicated’ above work ‘achieved’.

25% of Japanese companies reported workers doing 80+ hours vs 16% in the US and 12.5% in the UK.

However Calbee, with its heavy American influence is bucking the trend. The company is set to operate the first ‘work-from-home’ rules for a major listed Japanese corporation in 2017. Since 2013, Calbee began to encourage its employees to leave the office early on Wednesdays. Summer Time was also introduced in the summer and its offices and plants started working earlier in the morning, helping to streamline operations and reduce the amount of overtime.

Perhaps Japanese companies should truly look at ‘efficiency’ for their workers and boost the incentive based pay structures that offer very transparent goal setting. Too often the most talented employees get paid the same as flunky colleagues based on age or tenure. Shuji Nakamura, the inventor of the blue LED, took umbrage that he wasn’t properly paid for his ingenuity by his employee Nichia.  Nichia made over Y120bn off his discovery but he was treated more or less as just another employee with no special bonus given. He took the company to court and after a lengthy trial where he was initially awarded Y60bn ($US500mn) took an out of court settlement of Y844mn (c. US$8mn) in 2005.

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