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Elderly Care: A New Chapter for HR in Japan

Does your employer provide you support to address the elderly care needs of your parents or parents-in-law? How do such policies compare to those of other organisations? In Japan listings of such company policies are now available, and they are accessible to prospective and current employees. The wide range of corporate practices, over and above what is mandated by law, illustrates how this is a novel domain for corporate HR as they try to shape the role of corporations in supporting their employees with caregiving responsibilities. This has become an important aspect of societal adaptation to the unprecedented ageing of the Japanese population.

Rapid demographic ageing has made the provision of elderly care an increasingly pressing problem in Japan. In 2018 the proportion of over 65 years old reached 28.1%. The progressive increase in life expectancy, together with low fertility, points to a substantial expected increase in the dependency ratio, the number of older adults per 100 working age adults, from 27.3 in 2000 to 54.4 in 2025[1]. There is a gap between the supply of formal institutionalised care and the care needs of the elderly, which means that informal care at home is critical. Since Government is determined to keep a firm grip on the costs of care provision for the elderly, and there is a deep-seated reluctance to develop the ‘care sector’ through substantial immigration, the work of providing care at home inevitably shifts more and more to family members.

Although elderly care provision, in Japan as in other industrialised countries, has traditionally been considered women’s work, demographic pressures are leading to more men being involved in care provision. Moreover, care is increasingly being provided by people in work rather than just non-working family members. It is becoming harder for men to justify their lack of participation in elderly care by appeal to their status as ‘a working man’. Indeed, 77.4% of male family carers in their 40s and 50s are employed. In 2016 the number of employees who were providing elderly care to family members was 3,968,000 (an increase of about 35% from 2001), and 46% of these were men[2]. A very high proportion of these male carers are managers (around 35% in 2013[3]). The difficulties of balancing care responsibilities are well-known: some employees find it so stressful that they stop working.

It is as a result of this situation that Japan’s large corporations have developed a range of initiatives and policies to try and ease the strain of caregiving among their employees – by providing special leave to provide care, adjusting working conditions, especially on hours and location of work, and offering help with the financial implications of elderly care. It has become common practice for companies to provide workshops for employees on managing to raise awareness about and learn how to address elderly care while continuing to work.

Japanese law requires employers to allow 93 days of carer leave on top of 5 days paid leave (with companies free to decide how many of the 93 days are to be paid). There are, however, plenty of companies that do more than the minimum required by law - either by providing more than 5 days paid leave or by allowing for longer periods of total carer leave.  Marubeni, for example, a trading and investment conglomerate, provides 50 days of paid leave on top of the legally mandated 5; and Mizuho, a financial services provider, allows up to three years of leave, a mix of paid and unpaid partly covered by participation in a care-related insurance scheme. The paper manufacturer OJI Holdings encourages those who stopped work due to care to come back up to five years after leaving, as long as they have worked at least three years before.

There are also companies that provide financial support for care-related expenses. The IT company NEC provides up to Y500,000 (£3600) towards the costs of relocating parents to live with or close to the employee. Panasonic lends employees up to Y3,000,000 (£21,700) for care related renovations for parents with care needs above a certain threshold. Other companies provide support for ongoing paid care support, such as Asahi Kasei, a chemicals company, which pays half the costs of a home help – single payments of Y7500 (£50) for up to 100 times in a year.

JFE Engineering is one of many companies that has policies in place to provide flexibility in working arrangements: it allows employees to shorten their working day by 2 hours for up to five years, as well as working from satellite locations. It is now trialling working entirely from home. The electronics multinational Brother permits flex-time around a core working time of 9:30-14:00 with also 2 days per week working from home.

As these examples show, there is substantial variety in the range of policies, and it is surely important to see that some companies consider the needs of the extended family as a legitimate reason for financial support. It is also significant that some policies requires managers and other employees to adjust their own working practices to accommodate the needs of caregiving employees. Indeed, Mizuho provides a special bonus for staff who help with the work of such employees. What we are seeing in Japan is clear evidence of a widespread effort to come up with novel approaches and solutions to addressing the twin demands of care and work.  Emblematic of this effort is the decision by Japan Airlines to add a focus on elderly care to its already established Innovation Laboratory on childcare.

Developing policies to support employees who care for their frail parents and parents-in-law has become an integral part of company practice, and is often seen as an instance of corporate social responsibility.  As well as being consistent with the Japan Business Federation’s promotion of corporate involvement in addressing employees’ care needs, it is also line with government priorities.

It is now widely recognised that support for employees with caregiving responsibilities  implies a potential adjustment to working practices, and that this, in turn, requires the involvement of corporate management, i.e. significant organizational change. The costs and benefits of such policies are, however, likely to differ across companies, especially in respect of their size.  The diffusion of these practices across smaller enterprises is going to be an important issue in the near future.

Countries are of course different in institutions, policies and culture.  What works in Japan may not translate straightforwardly elsewhere. Even so, the experience of Japan’s corporations in addressing their employees’ family care needs is likely to be useful to other countries that are ageing rapidly.  

[1] Statistic Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Japan, 2019, Statistical data: the elderly in Japan

[2] Much of this - including the case studies - has been written up in a 2018 report from the Japan Business Federation – Support for balancing work and care.

[3] Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare 2013, Survey on work and care balance.

About the author:

Dr Umegaki-Costantini’ is a Marie-Curie Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. At SciencesPo her research is focused on elderly care and care technology in Japan and France, which is fully-funded by Horizon 2020 Marie Curie actions by the European Commission.

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Comments Welcome: We welcome your comments on this or any of the Institute's blog posts. Please feel free to email comments to be posted on your behalf to or use the Disqus facility linked below.