BERLIN - The shock came in his first year of training. His employer – the BMW motorcycle factory in Berlin-Spandau – asked Johann Gundel to don a strange suit: the “age suit,” with weights in it. Gundel could hardly move in the suit. His joints stiffened, and every step was an effort.

Gundel, blond, slim and boyish, was getting a taste of how it would feel when he was old and grey. It wasn’t a good feeling. In fact, “it scared me,” says the apprentice.

Scaring him was the intention, even if BMW prefers to call this “awareness-building.” Which is what its Apprentice Fitness Week is supposed to do – open the eyes of those just starting their working life so that they live healthy to stay healthy.

After apprentices experience the “age suit,” they learn how they can postpone the effects of aging through sports and good nutrition.

BMW has a vested interest in keeping workers like Gundel fit when they’re 50 and 60 – not only will there be fewer qualified workers in the future, but the work will be more demanding.

The company’s competitiveness down the road depends on young people like Gundel. They must be "resilient, highly motivated, and durable," says head of human resources Per Ankerer.

Until now, companies have been only peripherally involved in their workers’ health, and according to Germany’s IGA – "Initiative Gesundheit und Arbeit" (Initiative for Health and Work) – only one in three larger employers have a corporate health management program. For decades it has been common practice to farm employees out to retirement by age 60 at the latest. 

Now there’s a change of focus, and companies are expected to play a central role in it. That is the message of the German government’s second “Demografie-Gipfel” (Demography Summit) – part of their “Every Age Counts” demographic strategy launched in 2012 – which took place on May 14 in Berlin.

But how realistic is it to expect workers to stay healthy, qualified and motivated until retirement? If the idea is to stand a chance, employers are going to have to invest heavily in healthy work conditions.

BMW is already doing this. Their Berlin-Spandau factory even has a doctor on staff, Ralf Herfordt. Everybody is encouraged to stop by his practice, open all day, on factory premises to consult him about any health issues they may have.

Most of his patients are in their mid-40s, many are overweight, have high blood pressure or smoke. Their lifestyle is often unhealthy, which means that they’re frequently sick and retire early. Dr. Herfordt, 51, slim and athletic, is responsible for health management.

If he has anything to do with it, apprentices like Johann Gundel won’t get fat, and older workers will be converted to a different approach to their health. To make that a reality, Dr. Herfordt has launched a complex awareness-building and incentive system as part of BMW’s "Heute für morgen" (Today for Tomorrow) strategy. 

Health ambassadors and 20-meter long colons

The system includes info sessions about subjects like healthy eating and burnout, but also more extravagant measures such as the 20-meter (788 feet) long, walk-in model of a human colon that’s going up at the factory this September. 

It will enable workers to see how polyps can become a tumor so that they are sensitized to the importance of cancer prevention and early recognition – in fact, the over 50s get the day off to go get tested. In the company canteen, unhealthy foods are marked in orange, healthy ones in green. There is also a large fitness facility on factory premises. 

But according to Dr. Herfordt, there is quite a bit of resistance to the good-for-your-health pressure, however soft. "Workers do not respond to the finger-shaking approach," he notes. So he trains volunteers as “health ambassadors” to talk others round, but says sometimes he dreams of being able to introduce mandatory measures, like collective gym breaks in Asian companies. 

The success of prevention is difficult to measure – which is one of the reasons small and medium-sized companies are reluctant to invest in it. Who really knows if workers are out sick because they eat too much currywurst (pork sausages served with curry ketchup), or are trying to get out of shift duty?

Yet, along with lifestyle, work conditions play a big role in how healthy one is in later years, says Martin Hasselhorn of the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA). Job pressure can produce a parallel (and potentially as much) strain on health as outside-work pressures associated with social status

Both can have positive and negative effects. When work conditions are good, impact on health may actually be positive. But with heavy manual labor that is mostly not the case, and health is jeopardized.

BMW is aware of that. A shift job building motorcycles is physically demanding, especially long term, so one of the "Heute für morgen" objectives is improved work conditions – such as part-time options, new flooring, better work shoes, and even physiotherapists to teach workers relaxation exercises. Supervisors also receive training on how to show appreciation and give workers motivating feedback.

But there are limits. At the end of the day, says health manager Herfordt, motorcycles have to get built, and profits made. Unhealthy shift work is not about to disappear in German industry, either at BMW or other manufacturers.

If the World Health Organization (WHO) anticipates that the health of older workers will continue to get better, one big unknown says the BauA’s Hasselhorn is how work pressures in a fast-changing working world affects workers psychologically.

For his part, Johann Gundel looks confidently ahead to the future. After the experience with the “age suit” he joined a McFit health club and trains there twice a week. But he hasn’t gotten as far as addiction issues or nutrition yet. He still smokes. Eating mostly vegetables also doesn’t appeal – “right now I want to enjoy my youth,” he says.