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Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010

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Personal pursuit: Akemi Sakurai, a member of a theater troupe, practices her lines on stage in Tokyo in October, after taking leave from work. KYODO PHOTO

More firms let staff take leave to chase their dreams

Employees given the opportunity to strike balance between career, personal interests


By SAWAKO OBARA
Kyodo News

While it is not uncommon for Japanese firms to let workers take leave to start a family or care for an ailing relative, a growing number of firms are instituting measures to assist employee efforts to pursue personal aspirations.

Companies are trying to fulfill workers' varied desires in the belief that performance will improve if they broaden their horizons outside the workplace.

In 2009, Kirin Brewery Co. began allowing workers who have at least five years of service behind them to take leave for up to three years for the sake of personal development, volunteering their services outside the company or living with spouses who have been transferred to distant assignments.

Shigehiko Yamada, 27, who joined Kirin after graduating from high school and manages brewery machines at a three-shift plant in Kobe, took advantage of the system in April to study English in Canada for three months. Although his work doesn't require English skills, he always wanted to study the language abroad.

"Taking on a new challenge abroad helped build my self-confidence," Yamada said. "I've become more enthusiastic about tackling new kinds of work."

His colleagues had to muddle through without him but were quite supportive, he said.

Usually when talking about work-life balance, it is about balancing job and family. But companies are now giving more thought to how to let workers strike a balance between career and personal interests.

After instituting parental and nursing care leave back in 2004, Kirin decided to comply with growing demands by employees for time off for other activities. The personnel manager extols the benefits of the new approach: "Boosting worker morale is good for the company."

Workers taking leave forgo salary during their absence, while the company will let pretty much anyone who applies take leave. Besides Yamada, three others have signed up.

Tokyo-based Ed1 Co., a provider of vocational training services, allows its workers to choose the days and hours they want to work. The original aim was to help female employees raise their children and look after ailing family members, but other workers also want flexible schedules, Chairman Kana Hashimoto said.

Akemi Sakurai, 40, who is a member of a theater troupe, takes one to two months off when she needs to practice or perform.

Sawaka Okada works only three days a week because she also has a dancing career.

"My experience as an office worker has helped me get along well with backstage staff," she said.

In July, IBM Japan Ltd. introduced a flextime plan that requires workers to put in at least two hours a day but lets them arrange the rest of their schedule the way they like.

The plan has allowed workers to spend more time raising children, attend graduate school or prepare for an exam to get an MBA.



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