Talk on Diversity Maintaining Motivation for Life and Work Regardless of Illness Talk on Diversity Maintaining Motivation for Life and Work Regardless of Illness
Mr. Junichi Okubo, CEO, NPO 5years × Yoshinori Andou, Managing Executive Office Mr. Junichi Okubo, CEO, NPO 5years × Yoshinori Andou, Managing Executive Office

Left: Mr. Junichi Okubo, CEO, NPO 5years /
Right: Yoshinori Andou, Managing Executive Officer

Mr. Junichi Okubo

Completed M.S. at Nagoya University in 1991, and M.B.A. at University of Chicago in 1999. Worker for Mitsubishi Oil (1991-1997) and Goldman Sachs (1999-2014). He had testicular cancer (Stage III) and serious pulmonary fibrosis in 2007, and his 5years survival rate was below 20%. However, after intensive medical treatments for 18-month, he survived and backed to Goldman Sachs next year. In 2013, he came back to the Lake Saroma 100km Ultramarathon race and finished. Currently, Okubo manages NPO 5years, the largest cancer patients support organization in Japan. As others, he is active to write articles and do seminar presentations.

In September 2018, a Diversity Lecture was organized by the Human Resources Division inviting Mr. Junichi Okubo, the CEO of the cancer support organization, “5years,” under the theme of "Maintaining motivation for life in spite of illness.” This year, we invited Mr. Okubo to have a talk with Mr. Yoshinori Andou, our Managing Executive Officer. They had a talk about the 250 km marathon in the Sahara Desert that Mr. Okubo ran as a cancer survivor and how the company can help employees with illness continue their work.

*Mitsui Chemicals supports 5years through its One-Coin Club, a joint charity program with employees. The company also sponsored Mr. Okubo in running the 250 km marathon in the Sahara.

Running the Sahara Marathon as a Cancer Survivor. Living Life to the Full in spite of Illness.

Andou

Congratulations on completing your 250 km marathon in the Sahara Desert. When you gave a lecture at our company last year, you mentioned your determination to run the Sahara Marathon, which made me very worried about your condition. So I was truly relieved when I heard that you had successfully completed the marathon. In the past, you recovered from two serious diseases—end-stage testicular cancer and interstitial pneumonia. What was your motivation in running the Sahara Marathon, a difficult race even for a person with tough healthy body?

Okubo

In 2007, my doctor told me, “You have testicular cancer, and it has progressed to the final stage. We have also found that it has spread to your abdomen, lungs, and neck.” My five-year survival rate was 20%. I was training hard for the marathon before the cancer was detected, but the diagnosis made me think that it would be impossible for me to run a marathon ever again… I even didn’t know whether I could survive... The Sahara Marathon I challenged myself to run had been my deepest wish for over 20 years and was actually an attempt “to prove myself as a cancer survivor.”

Andou

I imagine that this challenge you undertook was a great encouragement for those who are fighting against their illnesses, like yourself in the past.

Okubo

The moving story of my attempt was posted in English on the official website of the Sahara Marathon. After coming back to Japan, I received many messages from cancer patients and their families saying, “It encouraged me a lot” and “You really inspired me.”

Andou

My friendship with you, Mr. Okubo, has been long. It was back in 1993 when we first met: I was working in materials procurement for Mitsui Chemicals, and you were a sales representative for another manufacturer. We saw each other often. As time passed, we saw less of each other directly. However, I knew that you had been successful in your work and your private life through the new year’s greeting cards we exchanged. Then, I believe that it was 2008, your new year’s greeting card started with the sentence, “Dear Mr. Andou, I have cancer.” I clearly remember my surprise when I read the line, “But I will definitely overcome this.”

Okubo

I was confident about my health. I did not smoke and I had a healthy diet. I went jogging five days a week, and no problem was found in the comprehensive physical examinations I had every year. So I never imagined that I would suffer from cancer. I had just completed a full marathon a month before my cancer was found. The greatest concern I had after finding out about the cancer was money and employment. I was 42 years old and in the prime of my working life. My two children were eight and six years old. I was worried for the future of my family.

However, cancer is no longer an incurable disease. There are many cases where people return to normal life after the disease had been successfully treated. It is also possible to continue working while receiving treatment. However, it is very important for people in this situation to receive the support of their companies. Yet I have the impression that very few companies provide enough support to employees with serious illnesses. In such a situation, your company offers systems to support employees with illnesses.

As Companies Enhance Their Systems, Organizations Are Diversified

Andou

Mitsui Chemicals has its Special Leave System to help employees continue working while receiving medical treatment. Under this system, employees can use any expired annual paid leave for a specific purpose. In the past, employees who were not able to work for three consecutive days or more because of childcare, family care, illness, or injury could use this system. The reason why eligibility was limited to employees who were not able to work for three consecutive days or more was because we assumed that the system would be used for hospitalization or operations. However, the number of employees who require regular monthly hospital visits without involving long periods of hospitalization, such as for cancer treatment, has been increasing recently. Therefore, the system was reformed this fiscal year to enable employees to take special leave in half day increments. Now, the system can be used not only for treatment but also for fertility treatment.

Okubo

This is ideal both for employees and for the company. The system enables employees to continue their treatment without leaving their jobs. My opinion from the viewpoint of a cancer survivor is that it would be very helpful if companies were to offer a system that supports employees to return to work early. Many companies only allow their employees to return to work when they can work normally for five days a week. However, this places a lot of pressure on patients to recover so that they can work all day long. This demand may even make them hesitant to return to work. In other words, the system can discourage employees from returning to work. If there is no such pressure, employees can return to work early. I believe this would be very beneficial for both the companies and their employees.

Andou

Yes. If companies improve their systems, and employees start to use them, it could lead to improvements in an employee’s performance and this will strengthen the organization. Companies and their employees can then build win-win relationships.. Mitsui Chemicals has its Gradual Return to Work Program for employees who are recovering from illness. This is a program to support employees who are absent due to illness or take leave of absence because of illness and helps them decide when they have recovered enough to return to work. Starting from a half-day work, they are helped to return gradually to stable full-time work over a period of a month or so.

We also introduced the Telework Program with the aim of helping employees achieve work-life balance and increase productivity. Although this program was not originally intended to help employees continue to work during treatment, it should help employees who continue working while undergoing treatment and who are recovering from illness because the program enables them to avoid long commuting hours or travelling during the rush hour.
Further, we plan to introduce a shorter working hours for employees who are undergoing treatment, and I believe that this system will support employees who are recovering from illness.

Okubo

As companies improve their Human Resources systems, employees are able to work in a variety of situation, and this makes the organization more diversified. I believe that the diversification of a company is not only beneficial to its employees but also helps the company to form a resilient organization. This corporate diversity will attract and retain people with talent as a result. The more talented employees play an active role at work, the better the company will become. From this viewpoint, I think it is important to enhance corporate diversity.

In Supporting People with Human Connections, Emotional Support is Necessary

Andou

5years, the organization that you represent offers a support system for people fighting cancer.

Okubo

I believe that it is important to offer emotional support systems for employees undergoing cancer treatment in addition to the company’s system. The nonprofit organization, 5years, plays a role in connecting cancer survivors. Once diagnosed with cancer, people will often want to get advice from someone who has had cancer. However, there are more than 50 types of cancer. It would be even better if those people could communicate with and get advice from cancer survivors who have the same type of cancer, and who are at the same stage, age, gender, receiving the same type of treatment, and in the same occupation. To create a network of cancer survivors with similar experiences, I would like as many survivors and patients as possible to register as members of 5years. I am working to create 5years into a social infrastructure. I would also like to create a social community where cancer survivors can meet other survivors who have had the same type of cancer.

Andou

It is indeed important to support people through human connections in addition to their company’s systems. We assign full-time occupational physicians to each business division. The relationship between the physician and employee is close, and I believe it provides mutual support. While maintaining close relationships between employees with illnesses, occupational physicians, workplace supervisors, and human resources section, we try to offer a range of support that includes flexible application of the company’s system. I think that carefully supporting employees with illnesses to return to work is a great help to those employees.

Okubo

It is reassuring for an employee to have support provided by an occupational physician who knows the employee’s job requirements. It is also good for the colleagues of cancer survivors because they are able to ask the occupational physician how best to support their colleague.

Continue Working to Achieve My Personal and Professional Goals

Andou

Finally, would you tell us about your future plans?

Okubo

As a runner, I have two goals. One is that I would like to break my best record for the full marathon. I am now 15 years older than when I achieved my best record, and now one-third of my lungs are not functioning. People tell me that I won’t be able to achieve it, but I really would like to try. My other goal is to run four desert marathons. Besides the Sahara Marathon, there are other demanding marathon races through the Gobi Desert, the Atacama Desert, and Antarctica. Even among healthy runners, only a few have attempted all those races, and I really would like to try.
As for my professional goal, I would like to establish myself as a social entrepreneur. As I am originally a business person, I do not want my nonprofit organization to rely solely on donations. I would like to create a social business that earns revenue from its business activities and then uses the business revenue to continue its social activities. This is because if the organization does not function as a business, it cannot continue or expand. I believe this is my mission.

Andou

Mitsui Chemicals is also focusing on solving social issues through its business activities. Since last autumn, Mr. Tannowa, President & CEO, keeps telling us that “companies that are not strong cannot survive, but companies that are not good have no point in surviving.” In other words, it is not enough simply to be a strong company that generates a good revenue. This is a declaration that Mitsui Chemicals will be a good company which can fully contribute to all its stakeholders. I understand this as one of the approaches to Corporate Sustainability Management.

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