Posted on / by Mayuko Homma / in Consumer Trends, Data Insights, Social Listening

‘Premium Fridays’ 12 months on: Why Japan’s workforce isn’t ready to clock off early

Considering Japan has become known for its culture of long working hours, it’s no wonder the introduction of Premium Friday just over a year ago raised a few eyebrows – even beyond nation borders. Initiated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and Keidanren (Federation of Economic Organizations) in February 2017, the campaign aimed to kill two birds with one stone: to improve the non-existing work-life balance of the Japanese workforce and boost consumer spending. By encouraging workers to clock out early on the last Friday of every month, the government hoped that people would embrace their new-found, albeit brief, spell of freedom by spending the afternoon shopping and eating out.

However, despite the initial interest, Premium Fridays failed to take hold. When looking at social media conversation volumes, the only considerable spike reflects the buzz generated in the period after the announcement. Although minor peaks occurred each Premium Friday, the overall volume declined throughout the 12-month period.

Conversation Volume around Premium Friday

Aside from the sharing of brands’ Premium Friday coupons and discount offers, most of the conversation discussed the various reasons why the campaign was such a washout.

Where they blame lay: The four main issues
#1: Lack of money

The goal of the campaign was to boost consumer spending, but many people said that, on being granted an early finish from work, they’d rather go home than part with their hard-earned cash on shopping and food.

 

Translation: Premium Friday is a campaign that is only meaningful to the upper-classes who have money to spend when leaving work early. People who don’t have money to begin with, they only leave work early and go home without spending anything. I find that in reality, it would be better to let those people work without introducing Premium Friday.

#2: Employee loyalty

Leaving the office early when you’ve still got a ton of uncompleted tasks is hard for most people, and even more so for workers here in Japan. Some were even quoted to say they were forced by their employer to take Premium Friday against their will, which left them feeling stressed about unfinished work during the weekend.

 

Translation: This week, Premium Friday will be held for the first time by our company, but to be honest I don’t think I can finish my work which would make me think of work on Saturday and Sunday. No premium feeling at all! They ask for efficiency!!  What is a “pleasant working environment”!! Will it be a pleasant working environment if overtime is reduced. This is difficult.

#3: Client comes first

Japan is service-centric nation. We live by the saying ‘the customer is god’. Anything the client asks for becomes our top priority.

Translation: Having two days off a week is possible if the whole market understands that having two days off is the norm, and if no one blames others for taking days off. Premium Friday is also feasible. The pressure coming from clients “work without rest” attitude and competitors saying “don’t worry, our company works” make it even more difficult.

#4: Lockstep mentality

Growing up, we are taught to do what others are doing. It’s hard to take advantage of Premium Fridays without feeling guilty when our colleagues and friends opt out.

Translation: I think that the reason why “Premium Friday” hasn’t become popular is that there are many people saying “I can’t finish my work anyway”, “this has nothing to do with us”. It will be popular if everyone leaves at 3 pm like “Yay!!! Let’s go home”. It may cause absolute chaos though.

Over-worked Japanese are reluctant to take a Friday afternoon off to go shopping.

According to data released by the Premium Friday Committee, 800 companies had implemented the Premium Fridays benefit a year after its launch. While, given the lukewarm response, this may seem higher than expected, the reality is that even at companies that are seen to support the campaign, Premium Fridays is far from unconditional.

Translation: My work place is promoting Premium Friday, but even when I want to use an early leave, it gets crushed by some company event, and I can’t use it this month or next month as I’ll be busy due to event and training. I haven’t been able to use it for three consecutive months. Lawsuit.

Some companies decided not to promote the campaign as they realised that employees would have to stay late on other days to make up for the hours lost on Premium Friday.

Translation: When I had lunch with a person from a famous good-standing company, I asked, “does your company promote Premium Fridays?” and they said no. “If the overtime increases on other days to leave early on Friday, isn’t it like putting the cart before the horse? It would be better to adjust the workload every day to be able to go home on time on a regular basis” they said. I thought I would go blind from their halo.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There were some positive mentions which, among other things, covered employers doing their outmost to encourage staff members to make use of the initiative, no strings attached.

Translation: During Golden Week [Holiday season in May], what got me depressed the most was when I heard about the benefits my friend gets from the big company they work for. They can leave at 3pm on Premium Friday, on top of that the company gives 10,000 yen to each employee. It’s a wonderful firm that works hard for the original idea of Premium Friday, but I cried when comparing it to my own workplace.

This business owner made a public announcement to inform customers that all his employees were leaving early on a Premium Friday.

Translation: ASC Japan is doing Premium Friday tomorrow. For this reason, we will be leaving the office at 4pm! Of course, we will deal with any issues and customer inquiries. Please contact us early for sales and consultations. 

Yet, 12 months post launch, it seems safe to conclude the Premium Friday campaign hasn’t been quite the success METI and Federation of Economic Organisation had hoped for.

But then the ‘Cool Biz‘ initiative, led by the Ministry of the Environment, was anything but an instant hit when it kicked off in 2005. Introduced in a bid to cut down on energy use, the campaign called for limited air con use in offices during the warmer months, which meant men were suddenly allowed to give up on formal jackets and ties in favour of lighter attire to stay comfortable. Work ethics, traditions and norms won’t change overnight. Who knows? Give it a few years and clocking out at 3pm on the last Friday each month might be considered as normal as Cool Biz made chinos in the office on a hot summer’s day.

Should that fail, there’s always the Purple Embarrassment Capes shaming strategy. While unlikely to help the slowdown of economic growth, they reportedly contribute to a healthier work/life balance. Now, which one would you prefer?