People in Singapore get the least sleep in the whole of Southeast Asia – an average of six hours and 32 minutes a night, according to one study commissioned by a sleep-tracking device manufacturer.

Only Tokyo and Seoul have worse track records, with the population of the Japanese capital averaging five hours each night. To find out how worried Singaporeans should be, it’s worth taking a closer look at the situation in Japan.

The roots of Tokyo’s lack of sleep can be found in the city’s notorious work culture and long work hours. At least, that’s what Kenichi Kuroda, professor in labour culture at Tokyo’s Meiji University, believes. “The biggest problem is that there aren’t any restrictions as to the maximum number of hours a person can work overtime,” Kuroda said. “In that way, the faith of employees is completely dependent on the individual organisations.”

Importantly, overwork has been an issue for much longer in Japan. In 2014, Japanese workers spent an average 1.7 extra hours each day working, slightly lower than the 1.9 hours back in 1995, but still much longer than any other developed nation. In that same year, almost 22.7 per cent of Japanese firms had full-time employees surpassing the critical ‘karoshi line’ of 80 hours (karoshi is the Japanese term for dying from overwork).

Ai, 32, has experienced the negative effects of overwork and the subsequent sleep deprivation at a large consultancy firm in Japan. “On average, I work 13 hours a day. Every now and then it can be from 9am until 5am the next morning,” she said.

She believes the Japanese work ethic, combined with resistance to change among older workers, is to blame for the status quo: “Older employees in my organisation are so used to a tiring work rhythm, it is hard to change that if they won’t complain to management. On top of that, they expect a similar attitude from younger employees. So going home early, or even taking up your holidays, is considered a lack of commitment in my department.”

It is starting to consume her sleeping habits, Ai said. “When I finish my own job, I get new tasks… this is how it keeps coming. And I don’t want to burden my colleagues with my work. If I go home with the knowledge they are continuing, I don’t feel the freedom to enjoy my time off or sleep. Whenever I have time, I try to get some sleep, but many of my friends can’t sleep because of the stress they experience at their work.”

Ai’s experiences are backed by a study from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare about sleeping habits among employees. As many as 40 per cent of Japanese aged 20-50 sleep less than six hours each night. Up to 40 per cent of male workers in the same age group regularly got no sleep at all because of overwork and stress.

A white paper released by the Japanese government showed that few employers are trying to tackle the issue – only two percent of 1,700 companies surveyed said they have minimum daily rest periods.

But a few organisations are taking matter in their own hands. Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank enforces a minimum of nine hours between shifts. And diaper maker Unicharm Corporation demands its employees take at least eight hours off between shifts and doesn’t allow them to stay in the office after 10pm.

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