In a country famous for the hard-working attitude of its work base, the idea of life-work balance might be at odds with the ideal worker image that the older generation (a.k.a. the bosses) might have in mind. Putting long working hours is praise-worthy and often seen as a sign of commitment, irrespective of whether such long hours yielded any tangible results. And is precisely this mentality that is at odds with life-work balance. Under this mentality (much too common among old-school managers) workers have very little incentive to work efficiently, as doing the same amount of work will not necessarily result in a better marks. If anything, leaving on-time while getting the job done might make that employee look lazy. (Or even worse, it might result in him/her getting more work, with little extra recognition, since you are expected to stay late anyways).
This is a typical example of a prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, so I tried to define such a game. In this game I and my co-worker have two choices. “Work efficiently and go home early” or “Work inefficiently and stay late”. Of course there is a case where you are both working efficiently and staying late, and the issue of death from overwork, but that is subject of another post, for now lets keep things simple.
The payoffs (arbitrary as they may be) are as follows:
If we both work efficiently and go home early, we are both well-off, get a good life-work balance and no one is marked as lazy , in such case, our happiness level goes to 15 (again, any number will do but let’s say 15 for now). However, if I work efficiently and go home early, and my co-worker decides to work inefficiently and stay in late, he will get recognized as a hard-working employee and I get marked as lazy. Because we as humans care about what others think of us (especially at work!) being marked as a lazy employee reduces my happiness level to -15. Even though i still get my life work balance, now I am worried about not getting promoted, or getting sidelined at work. In a similar manner, being recognized as a hard-working employee increases his happiness level to 20, even though he does not get a life work balance. The same goes for me if I decide to stay late when my co-worker goes home early. Either way, both of use have a strong incentive to not work efficiently and stay late. However, since for both of us, our best strategy is to stay late, we end up not getting any life-work balance, and loose the benefit of being recognized as a hard-worker against my “lazy” co-worker, and thus we both end in sub-optimal conditions.
Even if individually we agree that there are merits to working efficiently and going home early, under the current system the right incentives are not in place to allow that to happen. As the government struggles to reduce the infamously long working hours in Japan, a move to recognize the “lazy” employees might be a step forward.