Feature: Japanese Businesses Backing Cancer Sufferers' Wish To Work

FEATURE: Japanese businesses backing cancer sufferers' wish to work

Japanese companies are striving to make it possible for employees diagnosed with cancer to continue their work lives as normal, even while they undergo treatment.

The push has gathered steam following the revision in December 2016 of a law designed to aid in the fight against cancer. The legislation requires companies to do all they can to keep their employees on the payroll after a cancer diagnosis.

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

With one out of three cancer patients of working age, some companies have already set up in-house systems to provide support. Some have established on-site clinics while others have subsidized some of the medical expenses incurred in treatment.

More importantly, however, companies are trying to change employees' mindset and attitude toward colleagues who are suffering from 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 given by President Masahiro Okafuji to his some 4,300 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 himself fought a serious illness, was moved by an email sent him from one of his employees undergoing treatment after a cancer diagnosis.

The employee, who eventually succumbed to the disease, was quoted as expressing his gratitude to the company for helping him keep working even after the disease was discovered.

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

If cancer is detected 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 currently do not fall under the national health insurance scheme -- the benefits system provided through a contractual agreement between a private insurance company and Itochu.

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

These measures reflect the company's policy to support seriously ill employees, Itochu officials said. Workload reduction and medical leave alone is not sufficient to support these people, said the officials.

Often, workers who are diagnosed with cancer will stay away from their workplaces out of concern that their colleagues may be inconvenienced by their illness, despite wishing to continue working as normal.

Itochu's executives recently discussed how such employees can make work compatible with treatment.

"Supervisors themselves must change their thinking to lead all employees to change their mindset," said one of the executives who attended the meeting.

Lifenet Insurance Co. has collaborated with outside entities supporting cancer patients to help them continue working while receiving treatment.

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

About 50 people, mainly from personnel management sections of companies in the Tokyo metropolitan area and Osaka, discussed how to support cancer patients in the workplace at a study session sponsored by the group late last year.

Naomi Sakurai, president of Cancer Solutions Co., told the session that many cancer patients find their limbs become numb from drugs used in their treatment regimes, but many fellow workers do not understand this and many other side effects.

To better understand 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 in taking 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.