Japan firms introduce fun activities at work to improve employees' health

Office workers exercise during their lunch break at a park in central Tokyo.
Office workers exercise during their lunch break at a park in central Tokyo.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - An increasing number of companies in Japan have been taking measures to help employees stay in good health as part of their management strategies, aiming to improve productivity or brush up their corporate image.

The government is supporting the companies in their efforts.

Working out how to raise the level of health consciousness among employees is a task for these firms.

In mid-October (2017), 10 employees from the head office of Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Himawari Life Insurance, a Tokyo-based company, went for a walk in the satoyama - forests close to residential areas - in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture.

They walked through a course about 6m long. Wearable electronic devices shaped like wristwatches, provided by the company, were attached to their arms.

The devices measured data such as the number of steps and heart rate, and the employees were able to access it on their own smartphones.

The data is collected by the company, which plans to utilise it in the development of insurance products. The devices were distributed only after obtaining the employees' consent. Most of the company's about 3,200 employees use them.

The firm also regularly holds other kinds of events using the devices, for example, having workers in each division compete over the number of steps walked.

STAY ACTIVE

The company began its health-improvement programme as part of its management strategy in April 2016. The forest-walking event is just one such measure.

In cooperation with eight local governments nationwide, including the town of Minakami and the city of Kaminoyama in Yamagata Prefecture, the company offers programmes to improve the health of employees who visit them, for instance, when taking paid leave. One example is a combination of hot spring bath at a resort and meals with a carefully considered nutritional balance.

Said Ms Rie Koida, 29, who participated in the Minakami walking activity: "My job is mostly sedentary, so I don't often walk during work hours. By doing this good physical exercise after a long hiatus, I hope it will be an opportunity for me to continue exercising."

The company subsidises part of the participation costs for the walking activity.

So far, about 500 people have taken part. Said Tsuyoshi Koseto, chief of the personnel affairs group section in the company's human resources development department: "Our employees' health consciousness has been steadily improving."

Itochu Corp, based in Tokyo, also makes use of wearable devices. Based on the results of regular health checks, the company provided the devices to about 230 employees who were at risk of developing lifestyle-related diseases.

The company uses the devices to advise the employees on physical exercise and dietary habits.

NO OVERTIME

There are other companies that have implemented various kinds of measures to improve employees' health.

In March this year, Haruyama Holdings, a major men's clothing store chain based in Okayama, started paying an allowance in return for not clocking overtime work.

About 1,400 regular contract employees of the firm and its group company, Haruyama Trading, are covered by the scheme.

If an employee's overtime in a month is zero, a fixed amount of 15,000 yen (S$178) is paid to them.

The company has held lectures on coping with stress, in which mental training methods used by sports athletes are introduced. It aims to support employees' efforts to stay in good condition both physically and mentally.

WORKOUT WHILE WORKING

There are many cases in which company employees do not have time to do physical exercise because they are so busy. Itoki Corp, an Osaka-based company that sells mainly office equipment, introduced ways for its employees to do exercise during the workday.

For example, desks whose heights can be changed were placed in areas where many staff members have sedentary jobs so that they can work while standing.

On hallway floors, markings indicate longer-than-usual stride lengths. By walking with longer strides, employees can increase their volume of physical activity. At "stretch points", employees place their hands or feet on markings on the walls and floors, allowing them to stretch their legs and backs.

Tokyo-based Fujikura has even set up monkey bars inside its office. When workers hang from the bars, their bodies get a good stretch.

Meanwhile, Daiwa Securities Group in Tokyo began a points system in November last year (2016) for employees who have made efforts to improve their health, such as walking, quitting smoking or having breakfast every day. Employees are awarded points for their efforts, which can be exchanged for gifts such as products that aid sleep.