Mental Health in the Korean Workplace

by Samsung Economic Research Institute , 24/07/2012


Promoting the mental health of its population is one of the challenges facing every country. This is especially true in Korea, where the number of people treated for mental disorders reached 2.31 million in 2010, a 46% increase from 2004.

Mental disorders cover a wide spectrum of medical problems, including unhealthy behavior as well as brain dysfunctions and psychological problems. Excluding alcohol and tobacco addiction cases and dementia, there were 1.59 million people who were treated for mental illness in 2010. In particular, the mental health status of middle-aged workers aged 45-54, who play critical roles at companies, is more severe than in other major OECD countries. ( Note: The ratio of workers aged 45-54 with mental illness to those in 35-44 is 3.52 for Korea, compared with 0.75 in Australia, 1.15 in Canada, 1.16 in the UK and 1.53 in the US.)

The bigger problem, however, is that there probably are many more people who hide their adverse mental condition or simply are not aware of it. A survey shows just 15.3% of Korean people who experienced mental disorders have used mental health services, less than half of that in developed countries. Since the base for calculating usage rate differs between Korea and other countries, the actual gap could be even wider. Low awareness about the risk of mental illness and a stigma effect have combined to produce the low usage. A vast majority (87.2%) said they believed they had no mental problems.

Low service utilization can pose a major social problem because it could lead to radical choices like suicide when not properly treated. Suicide rate, a proxy for a nation's mental health, is on a steady upward trajectory in Korea. In 2010, the suicide rate was 31.2 per 100,000 people, nearly three times the average 11.3 of OECD countries. Between 1995 and 2009, average suicide rate surged to 28.4 people from 11.2 people, whereas the figure dropped to 11.3 from 13.7 in OECD countries.

Consequently, socioeconomic costs of mental illness stood at an estimated 23.53 trillion won in 2010. It was 2.01% of GDP of that year, and 1.2 times the Ministry of Health and Welfare's annual budget. Direct costs of mental illness treatment were 1.13 trillion won, and indirect costs were 22.39 trillion won. In the US, stress2 has cost the nation US$300 billion each year, and accounted for 2.53% of GDP in 2004. In the UK, costs were 26 billion pounds in 2006, or 1.96% of GDP.

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

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.

In particular, prevention activities, including forming a mental health-friendly environment, improving worker job satisfaction, monitoring vulnerable individuals and changing social perceptions, can strengthen resilience of worker mental health.

Source: This article is taken from Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace published by the Samsung Economic Research Institute.  Note that you will have to register to access the reports.


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