World's Most-Dissatisfied: Japanese Office Workers

By Junko Okamoto : Communication Strategist
March 07,2016
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(Photo by blanche/PIXTA)

“Hatred” is a powerful word.

But according to several recent surveys conducted by overseas organizations, the Japanese hate the companies they work for ― more so, at least, than any other people on Earth. This is a surprising result considering that Japanese employees frequently demonstrate their loyalty by spending their entire careers working for a single company.

Of course, lengthy spans with the same business could be a product of the hugely protective labor system, which broadly shields Japan’s work force. Without worries about job security, the theory is that society as a whole benefits because family incomes are stabilized, and individuals are incentivized to invest deeply in their employer’s business ― because a person can anticipate being around for long enough to reap the benefits of their own endeavors in the future.

So why do Japanese salarymen and office ladies apparently despise their jobs so much? Could it be that a system which allows employees (even the mostly-unproductive ones) to keep their jobs, leads to stagnation and laziness, thereby crushing innovation? Or is it something more than that? Something a little darker, and more difficult to perceive...


During my research on the current state of Japanese corporate internal communications, I uncovered something shocking. An international scale has been developed, measuring levels of “employee engagement” found in a variety of nations. The score for Japanese workers? Frankly, it is terribly low.

That’s especially disturbing, however, because conventional wisdom dictates that the market competitiveness of a company generally rises as employee engagement increases. Better competitiveness yields greater profits. Or in Japan’s case, with flagging engagement levels, we see declining corporate gains.

Picture two separate concepts for a moment: “employee engagement” and “employee satisfaction”. Which is more important? For years, the answer was the latter. But in the past few years, it is worth noting that an increasingly large number of Western companies are emphasizing “employee engagement” as a factor in grading managerial prowess.

The effect? An international study by the renowned research and consulting firm, Gallup, Inc., carried out in 142 countries with over 200,000 participants, revealed that although only 30% of Americans feel “engaged” when at work, that figure plummets to a mere 7% (the lowest rate among all developed nations) for the Japanese. Ouch.

Forget un-productive, watch out for counter-productive!

Turning to a separate survey that was conducted by the human-capital consulting specialists at Aon Hewitt, Japanese employees identified themselves as being “highly engaged” an anemic 9% of the time (the lowest figure in the survey, worldwide), but perhaps more interesting was the response that indicates a whopping 33% of OLs and SMen characterized themselves as “actively disengaged” at work ― the highest, by far, of any other country.

This suggests that while 1 in every 10 Japanese is struggling to navigate the corporate boat through the choppy waters of domestic and foreign commerce, a full third of the crew is dedicated to doing nothing (or worse yet, capsizing the ship).
In January, the eminent American public relations firm, Edelman, announced the results of a survey (done in 28 countries) which asked employees this simple question:

“Do you trust your own company?”

Japanese respondents placed the very lowest on the trust spectrum, with only 40% confirming trust in their company. That amount is paltry in comparison to the 57% of British employees, 64% of Americans, 79% of the Chinese and 83% of the good job-endowed folks of India, who all enjoy trust in their own companies. Not even the Russians, with a lowly 48% affirmative response rate, tested as poorly as the Japanese.

What’s wrong?

An examination of data collected over many years explains that this tale of woe being spun by the working throngs of Japan stems from the following 7 sources:

• Long working hours

• Decreasing income or low pay in general

• Restrictive corporate culture

• Lock-step seniority system

• Poor personnel allocation and utilization

• Forms of harassment (e.g., sexual, power-) and unfair treatment (cronyism)

• Inflexible salary/personnel rules

Boil those themes down, and what remains as a common element in my view is that Japanese employees share a feeling of being insufficiently compensated for their efforts.

Working hard, or hardly working?

From the perspective of employees who really challenge and push themselves to succeed and bring success to the company and those around them, it is disturbing to see coworkers who barely lift a finger on a daily basis ― yet who still receive a similar salary and other benefits. Because the remuneration scheme for “highly”-motivated and “hardly”-motivated types is nearly identical, over time more capable and proactive individuals come to resent the injustices that are inherent in the Japanese employment system.

Furthermore, the problem is self-replicating. On average, skillful and spirited employees are more likely to be selected by management to do all of the work that needs doing, so those employees tend to be busier and are forced to work harder than their less-competent, less-engaged colleagues. Put another way: those who hardly work are hardly asked to work, and those who work hard, are asked to work even harder. Unfair.

Japanese companies, Japanese marriages

When you think about it, an employment relationship in Japan is a lot like a marital relationship: although recent trends may be changing this, with divorce rates in Japan on the rise, the Japanese still change marriage partners and companies much less frequently compared to the people of the U.S., for instance.

Japanese married couples have been known, like bosses at work, to show enormous patience and perseverance, even in the face of a genuinely miserable relationship, or one that is utterly devoid of passion. These dreaded words, “content to be content” typify for too many of us, our mantra at home, and our life in the office.

What can be done? (Right now!)

Look, nobody is saying that change will be easy ― or that it will come quickly. And far better minds can come up with far better solutions, no doubt. But if I could begin a craze, some kind of movement, the tiniest of demonstrations, I believe it would start with a single breath, forming this message:

“You are valuable.”

A bit of recognition. There it is. It goes a very long way, and impacts more deeply than you might imagine. A spoken word, like “hatred” is powerful indeed. Now how about “thank you” ― and “what you did for us was remarkable.” Wield the power that you have to influence others with your voice, and apply it in a positive way. Tell your coworker, the one sitting next to you, how much you truly appreciate it when they turn up, tune in, and help out.

Shower your peers with praise. Lather them in supportive sentiment. Prop up our people, Japan! It might be easier than we think. At work, at home, wherever we find ourselves. Go ahead and tell someone (I dare you) that you love them. Just try it. Reveal your gratitude. Express how important their contribution is ― to you, to others, to the company.

We are one nation united by our silence. But we can break down the barriers we’ve built layer by layer in our society ― through better communication. It’s time now.