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Overworking is bad with robots waiting in wings

Bravo Japan for addressing its addiction to work. With advances in technology, limited human resources 
such as imagination are becoming more vital

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Gulf News

“Buy two suit jackets,” the bankers of SG Warburg used to be advised. If you wanted to get home at a reasonable time, without being spotted missing from your desk when co-founder Henry Grunfeld dropped by for a word, you left a jacket on the back of your chair. With any luck the boss would move on, believing he had just missed you and that you were still hard at work somewhere in the building. This story sounds quaint today. With smartphone and laptop technology, you may be allowed to leave the office, but when do you actually clock off? The beeps and flashing lights of gadgetry never seem to stop.

Flexibility is one thing, permawork another. This is a global phenomenon unaffected by the gaps between timezones. Now we hear that in Japan the government is considering making it a legal requirement for employees to take at least five days of paid holiday a year . Yes, five. At the moment, Japanese workers are apparently just refusing to take the holiday that is due to them. It will have to be imposed on them, as it were.

Overwork, with its cousin, low productivity, are a growing modern phenomenon. In Japan a combination of insecurity about your place in the organisation, fear of falling behind and the pressure to match colleagues’ commitment, seem to be behind the culture of work addiction. Not that this has helped the Japanese economy very much over the past two decades, where growth has been modest to say the least. Indeed, not only has Japan given us the concept of karoshi — death by overwork — but also the anthropological phenomenon of madogiwazoku — window-seat tribe — employees who remain at the company staring out of the window and not necessarily achieving very much.

Collectively, we are being pretty stupid about how we organise and allocate work. Talk of a UK “jobs miracle” is overdone and misleading. The workforce is bigger — the population has grown — but productivity is low ( 17 percentage points behind the other G7 economies in output per hour in 2013 ). Productivity remains much lower in the UK than in the US, France and Germany. However, there is no neat, straight-line connection between the amount of paid holiday workers receive and their productivity.

While French employees may enjoy as many as 25 days of paid leave, with a famously laid-back August in particular, and Germans get 20, US workers receive far fewer, with the picture varying state by state. What matters is the management of time and the skills and attitudes employees have. Some British people are working for far too long, with damage being done to health and family life. Others do not have nearly enough work to do. Low pay rates force some into taking on a second job; over a million people now do this (although not all of them — MPs, for example — because of poverty), while just under 2 million people remain out of work.

Incredible precision

And now, if insecurity wasn’t high enough already, we are told that the robots are coming to replace some of us altogether. But on this last point there was some comforting news recently, also from Japan, reported in the Financial Times. Junji Tsuda, chairman and president of the Japanese robotics company Yaskawa Electric, explained that while robots were useful they did not match up to humans in many ways.

It is a challenge to build them, and growth in their use will be steady, not spectacular. “Human hands have incredible precision,” Tsuda said . “There are more than 10,000 sensors in here [the human hand]. To put more than 10,000 sensors in a piece of hardware ...” And we need more, not fewer clever humans to build them: “Growth is held back by the number of engineers who can do that,” he added.

We need a rethink. Perhaps not quite as radical a one as proposed a couple of years ago by the New Economics Foundation — a 21-hour working week — but a redistribution of work and a reassessment of priorities nonetheless. Holiday is good for us, and makes us more productive when we return. If we are going to resist the advancing robots, humans have to maintain their edge, by doing imaginative things which create value and surpass what any robot could ever do. Death by overwork is not a wise option.

In Bhutan, conventional measures of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) were abandoned four decades ago, to be replaced by something called gross national happiness (GNH) . Although still a poor country by western standards, Bhutan has other goals in mind. The pursuit of happiness has replaced the pursuit of accumulating ever more consumer goods. Mind you, guess how many days paid holiday you get there? A rather Japanese-sounding five.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Stefan Stern is a management writer and visiting professor at Cass Business School.

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