Sep 6, 2017

Software helps workers with mental illness stay in jobs

TOKYO - For managers employing workers with mental disorders, it is vital to detect early signs of changes in their emotional and physical wellbeing and take action before the symptoms become prominent.

A software program developed by a small website design company in Japan is intended to enable workers themselves to assess their conditions while allowing employers to anticipate changes and adopt flexible arrangements beforehand.

Software helps workers with mental illness stay in jobs photo

The software, called SPIS, was created by Osaka-based Okushin System to support the company's policy of promoting employment of people with mental illness, and the system has drawn interest from psychiatrists as a possible tool to prevent work-related mental illnesses from worsening.

The company's president, Manabu Okuwaki, has actively recruited people with mental disorders, and found that the conditions of such people tend to change suddenly and drastically.

The finding led Okuwaki to start monitoring these workers systematically, using an online work report into which the workers are advised to enter their conditions on a daily basis.

Specifically, the workers are asked to answer a series of questions, including whether they have done all they could to avoid mistakes and if they have slept well through to the morning, in a four-point scale from "bad" to "good."

The software displays these self-evaluation points graphically to allow changes in their emotional states and health condition to be visually graspable at a glance.

What he found through the monitoring was that the workers' conditions tend to flare up following certain symptoms, such as headache, stomachache and auditory hallucination.

The online report system was developed based on views and opinions presented by employees, especially those with mental disorders.

Seeing the system as having universal value, Okuwaki decided to sell the monitoring system to third companies. He believes that if adequate measures are taken quickly in response to changes in their conditions, workers with mental disorders will not have to quit their jobs midway.

Consequently, the companies can reduce staff turnover, said Okuwaki.

Risa Urata, 30, has been diagnosed as suffering from a developmental disorder, making social interaction or communication with other people hard for her.

She entered Okushin System two years ago and has been in charge of developing the company's website.

At her previous companies, Urata frequently felt a sense of uneasiness and depression whenever she was not in good shape, and stopped coming to work.

She said her SPIS data collected at Okushin System showed that she experiences a difficult time about every three months. "I never realized myself that it comes in a cycle." Her company reduces her workload based on the data.

Since 2013, the Osaka prefectural government and other municipalities have subsidized business projects undertaken using SPIS.

Established in 2000, Okushin System has received many awards for actively employing mentally disabled people, including an award from Osaka Prefecture.

The federation of associations supporting employment of people with mental illness has also mounted a campaign to spread the software at private companies. Roughly 70 companies, mainly in western Japan's Kinki region, have introduced the system.

A survey of about 90 workers who had used SPIS in three years through fiscal 2015 found that about 80 percent of them remained at work 18 months after they started using it.

Experts claim that workers' SPIS data can be shared by third parties, such as therapists outside their companies, as well as their supervisors.

Teruhiko Higuchi, a psychiatrist and director of the Japan Depression Center, said, "Most mental problems at work get worse in closed relations between workers and their supervisors."

"Although it is too early to talk about its effects, SPIS could work to prevent employees from developing a major mental illness," he said.

The center's Rokubancho Mental Clinic in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward has started using SPIS to support employees with mental illness.

"We need to search for a more effective way to use the system while confirming its positive results," Higuchi said.




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