Dentsu moves to tackle its overtime problem following investigation

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Dentsu's Tokyo headquarters seen from the Hamarikyu Gardens.
Dentsu's Tokyo headquarters seen from the Hamarikyu Gardens.

The agency aims to foster a better working environment by reducing the maximum number of overtime hours staff can work in a month

Dentsu plans to reduce the maximum rate of monthly overtime for its staff by five hours, from 70 to 65, following the suicide of an employee and an investigation by the Tokyo Labour Bureau, a company spokesperson has confirmed. 

While that still appears high, the spokesperson, Shusaku Kannan, pointed out that Dentsu's official working day is seven hours—one hour less than the recommendation set by Japan's Labour Standards Act. 

From Oct. 24, the company is also expected to turn all lights off by 10 p.m. The new cap on overtime hours is set to take full effect from Nov. 1.

Buzzfeed Japan initially reported the development after obtaining a copy of an email from Dentsu’s president, Tadashi Ishii, to staff. The email said the move aims to improve the company’s working environment. It noted that "healthy mind and body" of staff are essential to sustainable growth.

The news is encouraging in a national environment where long overtime hours have come to be accepted as standard practice, often at the expense of employees’ physical and mental health. Will it be enough to make a significant change?

Of course, the measure will only be effective if it is rigorously enforced. The existing 70-hour rule didn’t prevent the suicide victim, Matsuri Takahashi, from routinely working 80 hours of overtime or more each month.

In a recent article, the Yomiuri Shimbun said Dentsu had put measures in place to stamp out the culture of long working hours following a previous overwork-related suicide in 1991, apparently with little effect.

Speaking to Campaign last week on the overall state of working conditions in Japanese advertising, Gary Bremermann, a staffing consultant to the industry in Tokyo, said: "Many agencies take active measures to avoid these issues, such as monitoring work hours and better estimating workloads, but when there’s work to be done, the rules get bent."

The Yomiuri Shimbun article suggests guidelines that Dentsu created 50 years ago to motivate staff—ominously referred to as "Dentsu’s 10 devil rules"—are a problem. While they are no longer part of official training texts, they remain in staff pocket notebooks, the publication said. It lists one rule as: "Once you start something, don’t let go, even if you’re killed."

Japanese authorities introduced a law in 2014 aimed at tackling karoshi (death from overwork). The law itself does not carry a penalty, but companies that encourage a culture of unreasonable overworking are liable to face criminal charges based on the Labour Standards Act.

This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.

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