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Fit for Work travels to Japan

Ksenia Zheltoukhova

22 March 2012

Since 2007 the Work Foundation’s Fit for Work initiative has examined the impact of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on individuals, organisations and societies across 27 European countries, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Israel.
This year we have extended the Fit for Work research programme to Japan, and I have been invited to spend a week in the country to conduct a series of interviews with Japanese stakeholders, including occupational physicians of large manufacturing companies, world-renowned academics in the areas of ergonomics, occupational health and rheumatology, as well as key policymakers at the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

Fit for Work has already achieved outstanding impact all over Europe. Our new interactive map highlights the positive changes that have occurred in each country following the recommendations of the reports. Based on in-country evidence we have demonstrated that improvements in early intervention, treatment and return to work practices could help people of working age, with even severe MSDs, stay in work. In many European countries a National Plan for MSDs or a similar-scale priority programme for MSDs has been developed, ensuring that those with the disorders are accessing the support they need.

Despite having experienced the similarities and differences of the health care systems between European countries, already in the first week of the research it was clear that the Fit for Work Japan project will be quite unique.
For example, a different culture of employment, where work is seen most importantly as a means of achieving purpose and meaning by contributing to society, supports the awareness of the positive impact of work on health and well-being. The Japanese health certification system similar to the ‘Fit Note’ (which has existed in the country for decades) reflects such attitude. On the contrary, in many European countries many employers, clinicians and even employees still feel that temporary or permanent withdrawal from employment is the only option of dealing with ill health.

At the same time, there is a very low awareness of the association of  ill health and reduced productivity in Japan, namely the issue of presenteeism. Many Japanese employees have confessed that they feel guilty about taking a sick day off and would come to work instead, as they realised that their co-workers would have to pull their workload. In many European countries employers have already recognised that issue and started measuring presenteeism among their employees – an imperative that Japanese organisations may need to embrace in order to reduce the costs of ill health to the employers.

The study of MSDs in Japan will result in a report towards the end of 2012, aimed to stimulate and develop debate, policy and practice through highlighting the aspects of the health care and welfare systems that facilitate or inhibit active employment for individuals with MSDs in Japan.

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