National

Japanese firms brainstorming ways to keep staff with cancer active, productive under new law

Kyodo

Corporate Japan is striving to make it possible for employees with cancer to continue working as usual while undergoing treatment.

The effort has gathered steam following the revision in December 2016 of a law designed to help fight cancer. The legislation requires companies to do all they can to keep employees on the payroll if diagnosed with cancer.

With advanced therapies leading to an increase in survival rates, many companies are looking into how to keep workers involved and productive to help both their bottom line and their employees.

With 1 out of 3 cancer patients of working age, some companies have set up in-house systems to provide support. Some have established on-site clinics and others are subsidizing some of the employees’ medical expenses.

More importantly, companies are trying to change mindsets and attitudes toward colleagues who have the disease.

One of the leading lights in providing support to employees with cancer is general trading house Itochu Corp.

“Don’t be overwhelmed by cancer,” is the message President Masahiro Okafuji gives his 4,300 or so employees.

“If you are diagnosed with cancer or a serious illness, you will get strong support from us — similar to what you get from your families — so that you can continue to work without worry,” said the president.

Okafuji, who had to fight off a serious illness himself one time, was moved by an email received from an employee undergoing cancer treatment.

The employee, who eventually died, was quoted as expressing his gratitude to the company for helping him stay on the job after his cancer was detected.

From April, Itochu will provide free cancer checks every year to employees 40 and older in a tie-up with the National Cancer Center. At present, employees in this age category receive general medical checkups every year, as is standard in many Japanese companies.

If cancer is found through the new screening system, the company will refer the employee to a hospital designated by the health ministry as having a top oncology department, according to Itochu.

The company will shoulder some of the costs associated with treatment that are not covered by national health insurance.

In addition, if an employee dies of cancer, the company will subsidize the education costs of their children while employing their spouses at Itochu.

These measures reflect its support policy for seriously ill employees, Itochu officials said. Workload reduction and medical leave alone are not enough, they said.

Those diagnosed with cancer often stay away from work out of concern they will inconvenience their colleagues, despite a desire to continue working as normal.

Itochu’s executives recently discussed how to make work compatible with treatment.

“Supervisors themselves must change their thinking to lead all employees to change their mindset,” said one executive.

Lifenet Insurance Co. collaborates with outside entities that help cancer patients stay active at work during treatment.

A group formed in October by Lifenet President Daisuke Iwase and six representatives of the entities aims to promote information-sharing and improve working environments for cancer patients.

About 50 people mainly from the personnel sections of companies in the Tokyo metropolitan area and Osaka discussed the issue at a study session sponsored by the group late last year.

Naomi Sakurai, president of Cancer Solutions Co., told the session that many patients find that their limbs go numb from the drugs received during treatment but that their colleagues are unaware of this and many other side effects.

To better understand the problems faced by cancer patients, participants in the session swapped business cards while wearing both work and latex gloves, an experience one participant said was very frustrating.

Masako Takeda, general manager at the career development office of Credit Saison Co., a former cancer patient and a founding member of the group, said, “If experience is built up, companies can transform themselves into ones that are friendly to people rearing children and nursing relatives, as well as to cancer patients.”

Companies, however, are generally slow to take action.

Miyako Takahashi, who heads the National Cancer Center’s division tasked with supporting working cancer patients, said many companies “don’t know where to begin.”

“If inter-company cooperation involving officials in charge of supporting cancer patients advances, their work options will increase,” Takahashi said.