Health and wellness

Japanese software helps workers with mental illness stay in jobs

The SPIS program enables managers to monitor changes in their staff’s emotional and physical condition on a daily basis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 5:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 5:10pm

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

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

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The software, called SPIS, was created by Osaka-based Okushin System to support the company’s policy of promoting employment of people with mental illnesses. 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 the workers systematically, using an online work report into which employees are advised to enter their condition on a daily basis.

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

Specifically, they are asked to answer a series of questions, including whether they have done all they could to avoid mistakes and if they had slept well, in a four-point scale from “bad” to “good.” The software displays these self-evaluation points graphically to allow changes in their emotional state and health condition to be seen at a glance.

What he found was that the workers’ conditions tend to flare up following certain symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches or auditory hallucinations.

The online report system was developed based on views and opinions from employees, especially those with mental disorders. Seeing universal value in the system, Okuwaki decided to sell it to third- party companies.

He believes that if adequate measures are taken quickly in response to changes in their condition, workers with mental disorders will not have to quit their jobs, and companies can reduce staff turnover.

Risa Urata, 30, has been diagnosed with a developmental disorder that makes social interaction or communication with other people difficult. She joined Okushin System two years ago and has been in charge of developing the company’s website.

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

She says her SPIS data collected at Okushin System shows that she experiences a difficult time about every three months. “I never realised myself that it comes in a cycle,” she says. Her company reduces her workload based on the data.

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Established in 2000, Okushin System has received many awards for actively employing people with mental illnesses and disabilities.

Since 2013, the Osaka prefectural government and other municipalities have subsidised business projects undertaken using SPIS. A federation supporting the employment of people with mental illness has also mounted a campaign to promote the software to 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 per cent of them remained at work 18 months after they started using it.

Experts claim that workers’ SPIS data can be shared to therapists outside their companies, as well as their supervisors.

“Most mental problems at work get worse in closed relations between workers and their supervisors,” says Teruhiko Higuchi, a psychiatrist and director of the Japan Depression Centre. “Although it is too early to talk about its effects, SPIS could work to prevent employees from developing a major mental illness,” he says.

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The centre’s Rokubancho Mental Clinic in Tokyo 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 says.