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Business Trends

Workers' 'sleep debt' rouses Japanese companies into action

Employers can monitor snores for thousands of dollars a year

Teijin's wearable sleep examination device. The company is one of many looking to address the growing problem of "sleep debt."

TOKYO -- Japanese medical device makers are offering corporate services to help employees deal with "sleep debt," the cumulative lack of sleep that is harmful to health and, ultimately, productivity at work. 

Since around 2010, when smartphones began to spread, video streaming and other services have been keeping eyes glued to screens. As a result, the quality of sleep has suffered, a worrying development for companies.

But remedies are on the way.

Teijin is set to launch a service that lets companies monitor their employees' sleep via a wearable sensor. The device, which is worn around the stomach for eight weeks while sleeping, monitors the rate and depth of breathing, after which it assesses sleep quality.

Employees can check results on smartphones, while employers can use the data to encourage employees with health risks to see a doctor.

After a pilot study last year, the number of employees who felt they were sleeping well quadrupled.

The service costs tens of thousands of dollars annually depending on the number of employees. Teijin hopes to land 500 orders by fiscal 2019.

Meanwhile, Hitachi is preparing to introduce a health improvement service in April that uses an activity tracker fitted with a precision accelerometer to analyze body movement.

Hitachi is targeting big companies in the hope of quickly creating a few hundred thousand users. Companies will pay a basic monthly fee of about $940 in addition to $1,700 for an app that can be used by up to 300 employees, for example.

In recent years, health management as a way to increase employee productivity has been gaining traction with companies, along with a push for more flexible working conditions.

As the country began talking about sleep debt last year, the market answered with a spate of sleep improvement products and services, such as special bedding and books.

Companies like Teijin and Hitachi think that sleep examinations will likely become part of company health checkups, in addition to measuring weight and body fat. An official at a medical device maker said that corporate sleep-related services "have increased rapidly over the past year or so."

Startups are also eager for a piece of the action. Sustainable Medicine, an app developer, plans to turn the app it originally made for insomniacs into a sleep examination service for corporate clients by the end of the year.

Another startup, NeuroSpace, has been offering a sleep enhancement program for companies and is working on a system that automatically turns the lights off when a user falls asleep. The system combines a sensor that looks like a mattress with home appliances.

According to marketing consultant Seed Planning, Japan's health management market is expected to reach about 1.67 trillion yen ($15.73 billion) in 2020, up from 1.36 trillion yen in 2016, on growing corporate demand for sleep examinations. The company says sleep counseling services will likely become as common as stress measurement and voluntary health checkups, with entrants to the market expected to grow.

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