The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Death from overwork—or karoshi—has put Japan’s corporate health and wellness policies in the global spotlight. According to the World Health Organization, the country has one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world—despite recent advances in prevention.

The Japanese government is looking at ways to address the problem of long work hours, recently having suggested amendments to Article 36 of the Labor Standards Act, which dates back to 1947. According to Nikkei Asian Review, legislation drafted in February would limit overtime to 60 hours per month—a number the government is trying to push to 100—with total overtime for the year capped at 720 hours.

But to create better work–life balance there are other factors that must be considered. General health—mental and physical—needs more attention.

There are a multitude of ways that companies can improve the quality of life for their employees, and some are beginning to include a focus on health in their corporate policies.

Incentives such as gym memberships, counseling, and in-house wellness programs are becoming more common.

But with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety still considered taboo in Japan, is employee wellness being tackled in the right way?

Exercise has long been seen as the key to physical and mental well-being, and its effects on work habits and mood are tangible.

“Numerous studies have shown that healthy employees are more productive and have fewer days off work,” said Nathan Schmid, managing director at fitness center Club 360 in Motoazabu, Tokyo. These findings reflect what he hears from most of Club 360’s users: that regular exercise reduces stress levels and makes it easier to manage work schedules.

From general health to better self-esteem and a stronger physique, exercise delivers many benefits and could play a key role in Japan’s battle for work–life balance.

Left: Companies have many fitness options
Right: Tokyo Counseling Services at the Canadian Embassy Mini Expo

According to Chris Colucci, fitness and nutrition coach at TokyoFit, a provider of nutrition coaching and outdoor workouts, “Regular exercise steadies the mind, lowers the heart rate, and allows for the release of endorphins that regulate our mood.” TokyoFit offers on-site group training and workouts.

Mitsuru Yamaguchi, director at private gym B-Fit in Azabu-Juban, added that endorphins known as serotonin, also “curb feelings of anxiety and depression.” B-Fit works together with companies to provide corporate fitness programs to help employees stay healthy and fit.

Exercise can also boost productivity by helping you focus. “A calm mind is less prone to give in to the temptations of social media or doing small menial tasks for the sake of checking off a box and feeling productive,” Colucci said.

But to increase exercise participation, deeply ingrained issues that plague work culture in Japan must be resolved—and this will take significant time.

“Unfortunately, society regularly measures time only in terms of quantity, not quality,” Colucci explained. “This leads self-proclaimed busy people to view an hour of exercise as a lost opportunity.”

Schmid suggested that one way of getting companies to include fitness and wellness in company culture is to have co-workers train together.

“[This] is a great form of team bonding, and is something that many companies—foreign and Japanese—are currently benefiting from.” To this end, the gym offers group training sessions based on the goals of employees. Lifestyle and ergonomics seminars, and workplace health and ergonomic evaluations, are also available.

At B-Fit, Yamaguchi explained that there must be an effective approach for fitness programs to be successfully rolled out in the workplace.

“Like anything done within a company setting, where people try to carry out best practices,” he said, “precision and economy of movement geared to getting the best results is essential to the process.”

One problem that Yamaguchi has come across relates to the role of media. He explained that media in Japan focus very heavily on dieting, rather than proper nutrition and exercise.

“I’m rather concerned about people just training right before the summer season, and/or just focusing on dieting over a short period of time,” he added.

There are also particular exercises and approaches that can be used to address specific work-related physical problems, such as posture. It isn’t uncommon to find companies that include in-house yoga, and the famous “Stretch and Flex” programs adopted by many construction companies. These highlight the need to take breaks at work, whether in a physically demanding job or one that keeps you hunched over a computer all day.

Yamaguchi explained B-Fit’s approach: “[We’re] mainly focused on posture. Ninety percent of our clients come to our gym with the main goal of losing weight. We are happy to assist with this effort, but we explain and stress how critical it is to have proper posture, to observe and work on sitting and standing correctly.”

Government studies have shown that young people in Japan are more vulnerable to mental illness attributed to long work hours and inflexible schedules than their older colleagues. Fittingly, the campaign for this year’s World Health Day, held on April 7—depression—is a concept that was not widely recognized in Japan until the late 1990s.

Research suggests that unhappiness at work can lead to stress, high absenteeism, lower employee retention, and higher risk of health problems. Ultimately, this can lead to errors that impact a business’s bottom line.

Michael Nevans is the clinical director at TELL (formerly Tokyo English Life Line), which offers professional counseling and testing in Tokyo. He highlighted the increasing need for businesses to address mental health concerns at work.

“More than 26% of businesses surveyed in 2014 by the [Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare] said they had cases of workers resigning or taking leave of more than one month for mental health reasons,” he said.

The onus for solving this lies not only with the individual but also the company and the work environment it provides.

“Workplace stress is legally considered to be a company responsibility, not a personal individual responsibility,” explained Ayumi Nishikawa, founder of JEAP Peacemind Inc., Japan’s largest employee assistance program provider.

“Therefore, the risk aspect of business management is different from that in the United States and most Asian countries.”

The work–life wellness business offers a range of options for companies, including organizational stress surveys that identify trends and assess specific issues related to stress in the workforce. The results help companies prioritize those issues to increase motivation and work engagement.

Nishikawa outlined concerns surrounding privacy—particularly in relation to individual health data—and the fact that there is no industry-driven policy. Presently, there is only government policy, which takes longer to filter down.

While there is clear political will to address work hours and employment-related issues, other aspects of work–life balance deserve attention.

“Organizational structure, culture, individual competence, workload, work distribution, job roles, recognition, and reward systems can all affect employees’ mental health and subsequent commitment to—and performance of—the core business,” explained Andrew Grimes, founder and CEO at Tokyo Counseling Services and CEO of non-profit organization APRICOT, the Allied Psychotherapy Relief Initiative for the Children of Tohoku.

Each person has different requirements for dealing with stress. In fact, Grimes asserted that mental health within companies should be something about which all employees are aware.

“Wellness is often considered an HR matter,” he said, “and is left in the hands of limited HR staff rather than taken as an integral part of the business essentials that every staff—both management and non-management—should have knowledge of and competence to manage.

“We need to foster the sense of shared responsibility to address mental health issues at work.”

Nevans advised that companies seek professional advice when it comes to mental health matters. “In business, we often seek expert consultation to make sure we maximize our chances of success. Changing the culture around mental health in your workplace is no different,” he explained.

There have been improvements in acknowledging and addressing mental health in Japan. In fact, the national licensing for psychologists has been passed into law under the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

“We are hopeful that this will further help to encourage wider general knowledge about the benefits and availability of mental health care services in Japan as a whole,” Grimes said.

Regular exercise is key to reducing stress

Japan’s health and fitness market is forever expanding. More gyms are establishing themselves, and the latest trends such as CrossFit and paddleboard yoga are just some of the options.

While this is an encouraging sign, Schmid expressed concern that the latest trends are not always based on well-researched health and fitness practices. “This will cause a lot of instability in the market, and we will see a lot of companies come and go over the next five years,” he predicts.

B-Fit’s Yamaguchi added: “Fitness should not be a trend, however. It should be viewed as an indispensable routine for everyone’s lifestyle.”

Changing the mind-set toward exercise in Japan—where many see being skinny as being fit and think there is no need to exercise if you aren’t overweight—is key.

“The real fitness revolution will happen with a mind shift in the general public to believe that regular exercise has positive effects beyond mere aesthetics,” explained Colucci, who also pointed out the many niche fitness opportunities are available for those who don’t find going to the gym appealing.

“Hot yoga, powerlifting, and outdoor bootcamps all attract niche clientele, and those Japanese adopters create a culture and lifestyle around the training. Import any new fitness trend, cultivate a culture around early adopters, and it is sure to do well here,” he explained.

Business opportunities abound in the health and fitness industry as we approach 2020. Whether it is training facilities and wellness options for visiting teams or simply an increased public awareness of exercise, the opportunities for entrepreneurs and those in the health and fitness industry are immense.

As Schmid pointed out, with the Rugby World Cup 2019 and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games on the horizon, “there is no doubt that there will be great opportunity for Japan-based health and fitness businesses.”

Colucci is also looking toward these events: “International companies have so far shown more interest in supporting such classes for their employees. I think Japanese companies will soon follow suit. With the Olympics around the corner, and new initiatives such as Premium Friday, physical exercise and employee welfare is becoming a hot topic.”

Well-being must encompass both the physical and mental human condition, and businesses should recognize the benefits of a healthy and happy workforce. To do this, Japanese companies must look further than just government policies and general health insurance. Engaging the workforce in health and fitness will require innovative thinking and attractive solutions that meet the needs of everyone.

Maxine Cheyney is a staff writer at The Journal.
Companies must look further than just government policies and general health insurance.