Healthy minds, healthy profits

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Healthy minds, healthy profits

The chronically competitive nature of Korean society is having a negative impact on the nation’s mental health. Between 2004 and 2010, the number of people treated for mental illness rose 46 percent, and even that probably did not reflect the true scale of growth. Health officials widely presume that many people go untreated because they fail to recognize symptoms, or because they fear being stigmatized.

In particular, the prevalence of mental health problems among middle-aged workers aged 45-54, who typically have managerial roles, is much higher here than in other major OECD member countries.

If untreated, of course, mental problems can in extreme cases lead to suicide. There too, Korea is on a steadily upward trajectory, and already ranks at the top of the 34-nation OECD. In 2010, the suicide rate was 31.2 per 100,000 people, nearly three times the OECD average of 11.3.

The socioeconomic costs of mental illness, which include medical fees and lost productivity, stood at an estimated 23.53 trillion won ($20.5 billion) in 2010. That was 2.01 percent of GDP and 1.2 times the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s annual budget for the year.

Aware that mental health in the workplace is important, leading global companies employ support systems that cover four stages: prevention, early intervention, treatment and aftercare.

At the prevention stage, services are in place to eliminate potential risk factors by helping employees stay mentally healthy. For high-risk groups, special care is implemented, including mandatory counseling by mental health experts. U.S. automaker Ford Motor operates lunchtime talks on mental health topics between employees and mental health counselors, while bulletins, posters and newsletters address similar issues.

For early intervention, counselors teach middle managers how to recognize early signs of problems among employees. When symptoms are detected, the managers link the troubled employees to counselors for early treatment.

For treatment, comprehensive services are provided by various mental health experts. In order to provide individualized services to workers, therapy draws on a variety of experts, including psychiatrists.

In the aftercare stage, follow-up monitoring is performed after treatment to help workers to successfully return to the workplace. As mental health conditions have a high risk of worsening or recurring, follow-up checks are critical.

Considering how Koreans avoid seeking treatment because of the stigma that society attaches to mental illnesses and behavioral disorders, businesses need to revamp how they handle mental health in the workplace. To this end, it is necessary to transplant risk management models onto a system that stresses prevention.

Providing stimulation from “good stress” to workers not only increases their productivity and life satisfaction, but can also increase a sense of ownership of company among the families of workers who can then lend emotional support to the employees.

Support can be provided to reduce the economic, physical and psychological burdens borne by women and workers who are away from their families. It is necessary to consider expanding childcare facilities in the workplace and broadening childcare leave for men. As for Korean fathers separated from their families, which are overseas for education of the children, psychological and economic assistance may be needed. Most of them suffer from poor nutrition, and nearly 30 percent suffer from depression.

Companies need to promote awareness that mental illness is not uncommon and can affect anyone, and is treatable. Imparting basic knowledge about mental health can reduce workers’ psychological and physical obstacles to access treatment. To this end, mental health services must be expanded within the workplace and outside organizations must be used.

Workplace culture also must be improved. It should be based on respect and consideration of employees to reduce pressure and anxiety.

Finally, a crisis management system led by the CEO must be installed. Mental health problems in the workplace can cause unforeseen damages, and thus appropriate response should be made to minimize losses.

*The author is a research fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute. Visit for more SERI reports.

by Lee Seung-chul
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