Could Japan Leapfrog America in Employee Well-Being?

There are two transformations occurring in workplace based health promotion in America. The first is the movement from wellness to “well-being” and, related to this, a shift from a focus on a return on investment (ROI) to the use of value on investment (VOI) measures. These VOI measures are well documented and publicly available, but are we thinking broadly enough?

This month, my organization, the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) hosted a contingent from Tokyo University and the Mitsubishi Research Institute. HERO is a not-for-profit research organization that has collaborated with Mercer to create a national employee health and well-being scorecard about which our Japanese guests were eager to learn.

Nearly all of the hundreds of American companies and health care provider systems that use the HERO Scorecard do so to benchmark their efforts against other organizations. The Scorecard is a planning and assessment tool designed to support HERO’s vision of improving the quality of employee health promotion programs.

Why were our Japanese visitors interested? They began their presentation by discussing the dynamic between the Tokyo Stock Exchange and Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). The two transformations that are inexorably in motion in Japan are, first, an alarmingly large exodus of elders from their workforce and, second, related realization that their future workforce will have ample choices about where to work. Leaders of the stock exchange and METI believe that companies who focus on the health of their employees will have a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining investors, not just employees. For the Japanese, this is not a subtle way to hedge their bets on future investments. The matter is quite literally “black versus white.”  Let me explain.

Black and White Thinking about Employee Wellness in Japan

Kaizen is the Japanese term for continuous improvement, and many large organizations study and practice these quality improvement principles. With this in mind, it wasn’t too surprising to note our visitors were most engaged when they were explaining “black and white companies.”

The talented university students that Japanese businesses covet refer to “white companies” as those who care about their employees and promise a high-quality work life. Meanwhile, “black companies” are those that burn out their employees and can’t produce well-being measures that matter to these highly trained prospects. To make matters worse, black companies are increasingly being outed with detailed exposes about horrendous personnel practices.

What does this have to do with HERO’s Scorecard? Japanese businesses prize data, so our visit with them started and ended with sharing metrics about Scorecard-abetted health and well-being in corporate America. Such metrics could serve as a basis for a company health and well-being accreditation system in Japan that lets stock pickers and future workers alike separate white companies from black companies.

Employee Health, Shareholder Value and the National Debt

Collecting such data may have a quality improvement subtext, but it is primarily about tackling a national economic problem head on. Our guests described the growing examples from Japan’s Ministry of Health where “mandatory employee wellness” regulations are imposed.

This Japanese orientation to wellness may represent a leapfrog strategy for the third largest economy in the world, but it would take a massive leap. To be sure, mandatory wellness won’t work in America. But if Japan makes big strides in wellness because of a truly broader value proposition it won’t be because the United States lacks global thinkers.

One leader who boldly attaches the work of wellness to GNP and global competitiveness is Michael O’Donnell, editor in chief of The American Journal of Health Promotion, where I am an editor.  O’Donnell has written and presented often on the drag that unhealthy lifestyles and companies being reticent about health promotion have on our economy. O’Donnell believes nothing less than the solvency of America is at stake.

Ray Fabius, president of HealthNEXT, has published a convincing analysis of the connection between companies that offer employee wellness programs and their stock market performance.

When it comes to the role of health improvement in global competitiveness, leadership from health care organizations is vital to a vision where all workplaces positively influence the health of employees, families and communities. An initiative called “Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Communities” has been created to drive health care and employer engagement in building a culture of health in America. There are many impressive stories to be told about what’s working when health care organizations and others businesses and stakeholders team up to make their communities attractive places to live and work. Let’s urge others to play leapfrog and then, let’s be sure we’re standing tall.