Learning from Japan: How Japanese managers nurture their employees

Learning from Japan: How Japanese managers nurture their employees

Japanese companies strengthen the physical and mental performance of their employees because they consider them the most valuable company asset.

In our “Learning from Japan” series, WirtschaftsWoche Japan correspondent Martin Fritz regularly presents the Asian country’s habits and behavior from which German managers, entrepreneurs and citizens can often still learn something.

“We’ll start with a stretching exercise: let your arms rotate completely and stretch out your legs vigorously,” comes the voice from the ceiling loudspeaker, while piano music sets the rhythm. Eleven employees in overalls are standing on the concrete floor of a Toyota Netz car dealership workshop and following the instructions, twisting their trunks, bending their knees, stretching their arms to their feet and bending towards the floor.

“Radio gymnastics” is the name of this fitness exercise, which half the working world in Japan follows, whether construction workers in front of their excavators, office workers at their desks or supermarket staff in front of the cash registers. In the early morning, the familiar announcer’s voice with the well-known accompanying music can be heard from offices and factories all over Japan.

The ten-minute gymnastics consists of 13 individual exercises involving stretching, muscle toning and aerobic movements that stimulate the whole body without people having to take off their work and office clothes. The public service broadcaster NHK broadcasts the radio gymnastics daily at 6:30 a.m., and it is taped in the companies. Participation is often voluntary, and most employees take part.

The interim recovery is also very important in Japan. The companies make sure that the lunch break is observed, and taking a nap in between is allowed or encouraged. At the in-house renovator Okuta, the employees bring their own pillows and sleep sitting up with their heads on the desk. The intranet plays pieces of music designed to trigger soporific alpha waves in the brain. The employees of the app developer Gaiax can say goodbye to the realm of dreams in a separate relaxation room on mattresses. At the Internet company GMO, a room full of sofas is ready for power napping.

Other companies are concerned about the night’s sleep of their employees, who notoriously sleep little due to the long commute to work. Printer and camera maker Canon hosts seminars on how to sleep better, offers one-to-one consultations, and equips employees with self-sleep monitoring devices. The event agency Crazy also encourages its 60 employees to sleep as long as possible. Those who regularly sleep for more than six hours receive money points to pay for in the company canteen.

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Also read: What bosses have to do to keep good employees

The daily morning gymnastics and sleep support stem from the fundamental belief of companies in Japan that their workforce is a valuable treasure that managers should cherish and care for as best they can. That is why the companies maintain and promote the health of their staff as their most important “business asset”. There is also a legal basis for this: since 1972, all companies have been obliged to take care of the health of their employees.

The main government requirement is an annual health check, which includes body measurements including weight, vision and hearing, a chest x-ray, and blood and stool samples examined for tumors, diabetes, anemia and hepatitis. The employer alone bears the costs of this health examination. Employees, in turn, are obliged to have themselves examined. Companies must submit the anonymised check results to the authorities so that any deterioration in the health of a workforce can be easily identified. The duty of submission strengthens the awareness in the management of being responsible for the health of subordinates.

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