business plan, monitor wall, presentation

Why be an employee?

I have been an independent consultant in Japan for a few years now and can never imagine going back to being an employee. In fact, I don’t see why anyone would be an employee for any major company, in Japan or elsewhere.

Let’s take work-life balance for example. Most companies pay lip-service to it because they have to but still expect employees, especially managers, to be available at almost any time. Work invades every aspect of your life. Not only do companies expect you to be available at lunch-time, but also in the evenings and at weekends. Days of back to back meetings are often followed by meetings in the evening, especially in foreign companies.

In addition to meetings there is a constant stream of email from which you cannot escape. If you don’t look at it at night you know you will be backed up the next morning, so you spend time out of work, while travelling, in the evenings, weekends and even vacations trying to keep up. And the more senior you become, the worse it gets.

The span of responsibility for employees is often very broad and constantly expanded. Your manager may often ask you to take on a new role, permanent or temporary, with little consideration of your current workload. Now if the extra hours and roles were recognized and rewarded properly in the form of an increase in salary or a bonus that might be okay but they rarely are.

All this extra work can mean that your actual hourly rate is much lower than the theoretical rate that can be calculated by your salary divided by your standard working hours.

Companies often have poor practices regarding employee promotion and pay increases. In particular they do not recognize the growth of their existing employees and translate that into a promotion or pay increase. Unless you have a strong internal sponsor this kind of recognition is extremely unlikely. If you do not have such a sponsor the only practical way is to get an external offer for more money. In most cases this forces the company’s hand and they come up with a counter-offer, but by then it can be too late. 

One of the factors in foreign companies in Japan is the turnover of foreign managers. As soon as you have proven yourself to one, they return to their home country and someone else takes their place. This means that you have to go through the process of proving yourself all over again.

Going independent has been great for my work-life balance. While I am working full-time my hours are generally fixed and there is almost no out of hours work. If I want to do more I can, but there is no obligation. Occasionally my client will ask me to take on a new role and I can then negotiate based on my other tasks and hours. 

Computer, Smartphone and Zoom meeting on the screen

Photo by Allie on Unsplash

I have also noticed a significant improvement in my health. Because my hours are more reasonable, I no longer feel so tired on weekends and so can exercise. I can even get home early enough during the week to exercise if I want to.

An objective data point that I have observed is my resting heart rate. This is now significantly lower that it was as an employee and does not trend upwards at the end of the week due to tiredness as it used to when I was an employee. This may also be due to the fact that I am sleeping better, not having to attend early morning, or late-night calls.

Lastly, I no longer have the Sunday evening blues. Sunday evenings are no different to any other evening because I know that I am not relinquishing control of my life for the next five days. I know that I will have breathing time each evening to do what I want to do things for myself and my family.

If you have the right skills there are few downsides to being independent. Of course, there is a risk that you won’t have work for a while and you will need to build up a financial buffer to mitigate that risk. But being laid off is a possibility even as an employee. You also need to maintain a good set of contacts, and keep your skills up to date, but you have a lot more time to do both.

Overall, I can thoroughly recommend it. And for me, there is really no choice.


This Post was written by an anonymous member of the Business In Japan | LinkedIn group Founded 2/2008 | 58,000+ members as at 2020, ~35%+ based in Japan.

Not convinced and/or want to work in a job, in Japan? Check out:
6 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Job Hunting In Japan