Although the Japanese are usually seen as the world’s worst workaholics, they might also have a solution to the worldwide problem of overwork. It is an idea known in ikigai which is one of those terms for which there is no direct translation into English. It is rather the encapsulation of an idea, that of having a well-balanced purpose in life. It is the reason why we get up in the morning and go to work and do all the other things in our lives. Crucially, work is not seen as an end in itself, which is the underlying trap that leads to presenteeism and overwork.

In the context of our working lives, it is perhaps more useful a term than the Norwegian / Danish hygge, with which it is often compared. While hygge describes a process that fosters wellbeing and relaxation, ikigai focuses on creating balance between the various facets of our lives and so leads us to self-actualisation. It is typically depicted as a Venn diagram.

This is a much more sophisticated model than our usual idea of work-life balance which is not only something of a zero-sum game, but also ignores the overlaps between the different parts of our lives and does not address the issue of purpose at all.

The reason ikigai gets talked about so much at the moment might well be our growing realisation that we need to find a better balance between our work and the rest of our lives and in particular create better distinctions between our digital and analogue lives, while also addressing the issue of meaning.  

We are becoming increasingly aware of how important this quest can be for our wellbeing and longevity. As the author Dan Buettner points out in a TED Talk, finding balance in life is essential, and we have things badly out of kilter right now. Getting it right might even help us live to 100.

Cultures of overwork

Overwork is a global problem, but national stereotypes often do not tell the whole story about people’s relationship with work and the working culture of specific countries. Last year, the OECD published its latest data on working hours.

As well as challenging stereotypes, the data also highlights how productivity can go hand in hand with shorter working days, as shown by Germany’s position at the bottom of the distribution. It is proof that we don’t need to work ourselves to death to be wealthy and productive.

One of the stereotypes challenged in the data is that of Japan being an epicentre of overwork. However, averages can hide a great many things and it is clear that Japan suffers from some of the same problems as the UK, not least a working culture that doesn’t do people any good.

In Japan the problems of overwork can be so severe that there is now a word in Japanese to describe people who work themselves to death; karoshi.   

In Japan, the particular issue appears to be the culture of presenteeism. Flexible working is still something of a rarity because putting long hours in an office is seen as a clear display of commitment and loyalty. It doesn’t make people healthy or more productive however, and firms and the government are waking up to the fact.

The Japanese government has launched a scheme to promote teleworking in an effort to address the country’s notoriously poor working culture and ease congestion in the build up to the Tokyo Olympics of 2020. It has introduced Telework Day, which will be held on July 24 each year until the Olympics opening ceremony on that date in 2020.

The Japanese government has also announced plans to impose a cap on overtime of 100 hours a month. A Japanese government report from 2016 found that employees at nearly one in four companies notched up more than 80 hours of overtime a month, while staff at about one in ten firms did an extra 100 hours. A push to reform the country’s work culture has gathered pace since the suicide in 2015 of 24 year old Matsuri Takahashi. She had been working up to 130 hours of monthly overtime at an advertising agency.


There are lessons from this for us in the UK. We are prone not only to long hours at work, but also the rigours of the commute and an often unaddressed issue of digital presenteeism. One recent survey suggested that the average British worker now puts in an extra 10 hours a week, in line with a similar report from the TUC which valued the amount of overtime put in by people at £31 billion.

We may not entirely share the Japanese culture of physical presenteeism, but much of this extra work in the UK occurs in the digital workplace and with many of the same outcomes in terms of our wellbeing and productivity.

Ikigai is a useful way of framing the challenge we face in achieving a balanced and purposeful life. It is a timely conversation to have as we address the intersections of the various facets of our lives and the erosions of the walls between them and our physical and digital selves.

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