The annoying habits of the highly effective

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”
― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Business are a reflection of their leaders. Some have habits and eccentricities which may look innovative, but could destroy a company. Especially if you live in countries such as Japan.

Habits of the overworked

Japan has long been notorious for its relentless work ethic. It even has a special term for death caused by overwork — karoshi. In an International Labour Organization article about karoshi the following four typical cases of karōshi were mentioned:

  1. A worked at a major snack food processing company for as long as 110 hours a week (not a month) and died from a heart attack at the age of 34. His death was recognized as work-related by the Labour Standards Office.
  2. B, a bus driver, whose death was also recognized as work-related, worked 3,000 hours a year. He did not have a day off in the 15 years before he had a stroke at the age of 37.
  3. C worked in a large printing company in Tokyo for 4,320 hours a year including night work and died from a stroke at the age of 58. His widow received workers’ compensation 14 years after her husband’s death.
  4. D, a 22-year-old nurse, died from a heart attack after 34 hours of continuous duty five times a month.

In 1988, the Labor Force Survey reported that almost one fourth of the male working employees had developed destructive working habits. These led being at their jobs for over 60 hours per week. This is 50% longer than a typical 40-hour weekly working schedule. Realizing the seriousness and widespread nature of this emerging problem, a group of lawyers and doctors set up “karoshi hotlines” that are nationally available, dedicating to help those who seek consultation on karoshi related issues [more here].

Change is in the air

People often talk about how Japanese society has remained unchanged for decades. But when it comes to its work culture, the country may be witnessing a revolution. Shinzo Abe’s government recently issued a decree ordering companies to limit working hours. It has also been advocating that developing habits which involve overworking is incorrect behaviour.

Large firms face penalties if staff put in more than 45 hours of overtime a month. The ruling has already had a dramatic effect, with many managers now urging workers to go home early. A number of big companies, such as Hitachi and Fujitsu Group, are even encouraging staff to work from home. This is a radical concept in a country with such a love of endless office meetings.

A work /life balance

The change is not just apparent among employers. It’s clear that young Japanese staff also have different expectations about work/life balance to the previous generation. And with the country facing a labour shortage (recent data shows that 1.62 companies are fighting over each jobseeker), these workers are in a position to seek better terms. If this is the case then I would recommend that they shouldn’t look towards the detailed descriptions of the lives of corporate titans for guidance. As these have become a tiresome trope of business writing. And one of the most annoying.

Fashionable habits and eccentricities

For example, readers are expected to marvel at the stamina of Apple boss Tim Cook, who rises at 3:45am to deal with emails. Or admire the laid back attitude of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who recently revealed that he likes to putter in the mornings. Bezos does not schedule anything before 10am. The danger is that these “inspiring” examples merely make executives look out of touch. Being late is not is not an option for many of those who work in Bezo’s warehouses. Another example is Richard Branson who recently put his foot in it by saying that people turning up late infuriates him:

This, of course, enraged passengers facing delays on Virgin trains. Commentaries about successful executives often involve lots of showing off. And to a certain extent this is fairly harmless stuff. But the danger is that a leader’s fashionable eccentricities can become so embedded that they damage the business in the long run. Quirks that look daring and groundbreaking in good times seem more of a liability in testing times. Especially if you live in Japan and are looking for a new working paradigm to emulate.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash




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Robert Thompson

Robert Thompson

Big ideas and important articles. Writing to help you make sense of the world. And cope with being human.

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