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Go easy on the sushi and sake this season, Japan's Daiwa tells staff

Daiwa Securities Group Inc has a message for its staff this holiday season: Go easy on the sushi and sake.

[TOKYO] Daiwa Securities Group Inc has a message for its staff this holiday season: Go easy on the sushi and sake.

Japan's second-biggest brokerage is encouraging its 13,600 domestic employees to eat and drink moderately for 30 days from Dec 14. While most Japanese don't celebrate Christmas, a period of year-end and new-year parties is in full swing nonetheless.

The move is part of a drive to improve the health and fitness of staff, especially older workers, to boost productivity and keep them from burnout. The Tokyo-based firm in October appointed a chief health officer - a former investment banker who had collapsed and nearly died of overwork until he started on a fitness path eight years ago - to oversee programmes that give incentives for employees to exercise and leave work on time.

"I worked hard at the cost of my health," said Toshihiro Matsui, 53, who had spent two months in the hospital and four months on sick leave before he returned to work with a new dedication he now wants his colleagues to adopt. "Being in healthy shape is the best thing for an individual, and it also leads to more productivity for a company." Daiwa is among 22 companies selected by the government and the Tokyo Stock Exchange to promote health in the workplace. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying to break a culture of overwork that's been blamed for stifling the birthrate and leading to hundreds of deaths each year in a phenomenon known as karoshi. In a labor union survey last year, regular workers in Japan said they did 39 hours of overtime a month, and managers put in an extra 56 hours. The government is seeking parliament's approval of a bill that would make it compulsory for workers to take days off.

Globally, banks are also seeking ways for staff to lead healthier lifestyles in an industry with a reputation for long hours and high stress. Barclays Plc recently started subsidising Fitbit Inc. activity trackers for more than 75,000 US and UK employees. Goldman Sachs Group Inc earlier this year instructed its summer interns to leave the office by midnight and not return before 7 am, and also take Saturdays off.

Daiwa's holiday season initiative is called the "80 Per cent Programme" because it urges workers to stop eating once they feel that per centage full. Participants are asked to monitor their eating of breakfast, lunch and dinner and mark a circle or a cross on a self-evaluation form, indicating whether they managed to keep within the 80 per cent rule.

The practice has been used for generations in Japan, where there is a saying that following it will keep the doctor away.

Daiwa's program also gives 10 hints for eating well, such as chewing properly, getting enough vitamin B, keeping tempting snacks out of sight and checking one's weight at least every three days. Workers who are over 45 and successfully complete the 30-day course earn points that can potentially count toward salary increases once they reach their 50s and 60s.

Shinichi Seto, a 46-year-old Daiwa managing director, goes out for dinner three or four times a week with clients, colleagues and friends in the securities industry. He plans to participate in the program but isn't confident he'll pass.

"We have many client dinners, and I usually feel like eating rice or noodles at the end of the meal," Seto said. "I just know it'll go wrong if I keep this up. I can see myself falling off the wagon." Other programs at Daiwa also allow older workers to accumulate points. Under one initiative that started in November, employees are encouraged to walk at least 920,000 steps over three months, or 10,000 steps a day, using a smartphone application called Qupio.

Chief Health Officer Matsui, who joined Daiwa 30 years ago, worked on deals including Fuji Television Network Inc.'s purchase of Nippon Broadcasting System Inc. in 2005 - a transaction that garnered intense media attention when entrepreneur Takafumi Horie's Livedoor Co. made a rival bid.

Matsui used to work so late that he routinely missed Tokyo's last trains around midnight. One day in 2007 he felt so bad he finally went to see a doctor.

"When I was there, I lost consciousness," he said. He woke up in a hospital bed suffering from a potentially fatal condition induced by fatigue. "I had no idea what happened to me." He now works to ensure staff including investment bankers and retail brokers leave the office by 7 p.m. He has started running around the Imperial Palace, along with some colleagues, to keep fit and train for the Tokyo Marathon in February.

Daiwa's focus on health for older workers stems from the bank's decision in 2013 to let its thousands of retail brokers remain employed until they're 70. It previously raised the retirement age to 65 from 60 in 2006.

Those demographic challenges are shared by a nation where already a quarter of the population is over 65. People in their 50s will make up the biggest portion of the work force by 2030, according to the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training.

"I want to keep working after I reach the retirement age," said Seto, who has three children, the youngest of whom is 2. "I realized when my daughter was born that she'll only be 17 when I'm 60, so I can't die young."