More firms stepping up healthcare support for women

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Rohto Pharmaceutical Co. employee receives advice from a public health nurse at the company in Kita Ward, Osaka.

OSAKA — Efforts to support health issues unique to female employees are increasing at companies across Japan. Systems have been introduced that enable employees to speak to experts about problems related to menstruation, childbirth, infertility and menopause, among other issues.

One such company is Rohto Pharmaceutical Co., where women account for 60% of the workforce. With many of its female employees in managerial positions, the Osaka-based drugmaker launched a team to promote health five years ago, enhancing support for its female employees.

The company holds seminars related to women’s health issues and has a public health nurse on hand to provide consultations. Blood tests conducted during medical examinations check for anemia and iron deficiency, which are common among women, and advice is offered to improve dietary habits.

The company also subsidizes the costs for hormone level tests and its employees can also receive free breast and cervical cancer screenings.

A 49-year-old employee with two children who had suffered from headaches since her early 40s said her migraines were sometimes so serious that she could not leave her bed on her days off.

She also had irregular periods and had been taking medication for it.

After attending a seminar on women’s health at her workplace, she visited a gynecology clinic, where she received treatment.

She now holds a managerial position at the company.

“I was told that I was too young to be going through the menopause, so I didn’t think at all about visiting a gynecology clinic,” she said. “Thankfully, my company encouraged me to go.”

Almost all employees at Rohto Pharmaceutical continue to work after having children.

“We will further develop an environment to enable [women] to continue working with peace of mind,” said Naomi Maruo, who heads the company’s health management team.

Several companies have introduced services featuring “femtech,” technology used to support women’s health.

Osaka-based With Midwife Inc., which was started by midwives from across the country, launched a 24-hour support service in 2019 that 30 companies have signed up for so far.

Under the service, employees can get advice via email, and online counseling is also available. Consultations are anonymous, and the information discussed is not disclosed to employers.

With Midwife has received about 500 consultations including about fertility issues, of which 30% were from men.

Takara Belmont Corp., a manufacturer of equipment for medical institutions and beauty salons, signed up for the service in December.

A 35-year-old employee who returned to work in April after giving birth to her first child had sought advice from the company during sleepless nights and when her baby started attending daycare.

“I didn’t have anyone to talk to because parenting classes provided by the local government have been canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic,” she said. “It’s really reassuring that I can talk to a midwife whenever I need to.”

FamiOne Inc. in Tokyo offers a consultation service in which nurses and other experts provide advice for women who want to get pregnant, including information about fertility treatment. The company started offering the services to businesses in 2018, and it is currently used by about 40 companies.

Luna Luna healthcare app operator MTI Ltd., Carada Medica Inc. and Marubeni Corp. have jointly developed an online consultation service for women, offering information about menstruation, pregnancy and menopause.

While efforts to support the well-being of female employees are increasing, there is still a lack of understanding among employees in managerial positions, most of whom are men.

In a survey conducted in 2018 by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry on 600 managers and executives, 54.7% said they had “no experience” in dealing with subordinates who had healthcare issues specific to women.

Even among respondents who said they had such experience, 14.7% said they thought it would be “difficult for such subordinates to be promoted to a position with heavier responsibility or a managerial position,” while 7.8% said they thought it would be “necessary to encourage such subordinates to take a leave of absence or resign.”

Tokyo-based Kokuyo & Partners Co. introduced the FamiOne service in August in response to requests from some of its employees. “They helped me realize how much male employees fail to understand the difficulties experienced by women who want to get pregnant,” said Junichi Enomoto, an executive at the company. “We need to create a culture of support throughout the company.”

Narie Sasaki, an associate professor at Nagoya University’s graduate school, said research issues are also behind the delay in corporate efforts to provide health care support for women.

Sasaki said most trials in biological and medical research are conducted on men. Women are often excluded because menstrual cycles and possible pregnancies make it difficult to analyze data. As a result, there is a knowledge gap in terms of women’s bodies, and this has likely contributed to the lack of support for women in the workforce, according to Sasaki.

“The purpose of specific measures for women is not to provide preferential treatment, but to improve the current situation in which female employees do not receive sufficient support,” she said. “By addressing issues that have been overlooked, companies can create workplaces that value gender equality, which could lead to economic benefits. Markets for new medical services may also emerge.”