Japanese firms boost measures to promote employee health, enhancing their image in the process

Kyodo

Some companies are ramping up efforts to maintain and improve the health of their employees, such as sending them to remote health resorts where they can learn beneficial exercise techniques and other strategies to improve their daily lives.

In late July, 16 employees of Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Himawari Life Insurance Inc. in their 20s to 40s with differing lifestyle habits and exercise experience attended a walking program in the city of Kaminoyama, Yamagata Prefecture.

The program is called “Kurort health walk.” “Kurort” is the German word for a health spa where many people go to recuperate and improve their health. In Germany, “climate therapy,” where patrons can exercise and relax in natural environments, such as the mountains or in forests, is popular.

With a desirable natural environment, Kaminoyama has laid claim to being the home of one of nation’s first kurorts, promoting its hot springs and local foods.

The city has also been selected by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as a host for a health program focused on walking and other activities. As part of the pilot program, each participant is given instruction on how to walk without raising their body temperature or pulse. Among notable effects that have been observed are a lowering of blood pressure and more effective metabolizing of fat, according to the city government.

“Please feel the natural breeze while walking, as if you are trying to lower your skin temperature by 2 degrees Celsius,” an instructor told the employees of the insurance firm before walking.

One of the participants looked puzzled at the instruction, saying, “Will our body temperatures drop even though we exercise?”

After warmups and measuring body temperatures, the participants walked through a 3-km course, checking their pulses three times during the outing, which took about one hour.

They enjoyed the smell of fallen leaves and dipped their hands in spring water.

Yumi Masuoka and Momomi Ikeda, both 31, said that it was not as hard as they imagined and that people who do not like exercise could even take part in the program.

The insurance firm plans to eventually let all employees participate to raise health awareness, with the company offering to cover most of the expenses, including transportation and accommodations.

“As a company that promotes customers’ health, we cannot recommend our products to clients unless our employees stay healthy,” an official with the firm said.

Sunstar Inc., a major oral-care product maker, has been teaching employees methods to stay healthy, including how to manage their diet, stretch and a way of bathing that improves the functioning of the autonomic nervous system, at its health-and-wellness facility in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture.

From 2016, the company started selling tours of the UNESCO World Heritage Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes in Wakayama Prefecture to general customers, giving them access to the same programs offered at the health-and-wellness facility.

The approaches shown by these companies — with their emphasis on health management — are expected to improve their images with business partners and financial institutions, helping them lure more investment.

“We can enhance the health of our employees and the value of the company at the same time,” a public relations official of Sunstar said. “We can also convince job-seeking students that our company cares about employees.”

Backing the trend, the government has started publicly acknowledging companies that make an effort to improve the health of their employees.

In February, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry recognized 330 companies and organizations nationwide for their efforts for the first time. In August, an additional 223 small- and medium-sized enterprises were added to the list.

The ministry is also teaming up with the Tokyo Stock Exchange to jointly select listed companies that strategically engage in health and productivity management programs.