Employee well-being is a major public concern, and both China and Japan have made international headlines with problems related to their workforces. We focus on two institutional solutions aimed at improving the situation: household-registration (hukou) reform in China and work-life-balance policies in Japan. We look at newspaper articles in two leading national newspapers (People’s Daily and Asahi Shimbun) related to these two institutional solutions over a 20-year period (1995–2014) and use a media content analysis to analyse how these measures have been perceived and discussed. We pay special attention to the actors that have shaped the discussion and the ways in which the necessity of change has been framed and proceed with a comparison of the two case studies. While we observe many differences between the two discourses, our findings illustrate the relatively weak position of labour in both countries. Furthermore, the timing of the institutional reforms suggests that the topic of employee well-being in both countries is embedded in a discussion of overarching societal and economic issues, such as economic reform in China and demographic pressures in Japan. We end with a discussion of the implications employee well-being measures’ entanglement with these overarching issues.