Mental health issues threaten ‘knowledge economy’

In a knowledge economy, people work increasingly with their heads instead of their hands. This makes mental health a crucial component of economic growth. However, the knowledge economy leads to high levels of stress and mental health problems. By damaging its ‘mental capital’ the knowledge economy undermines the basis for its own success. These are some of the conclusions of the report ‘Mental Capital’ by Rifka Weehuizen, researcher at UNU-MERIT – a joint research and training centre of United Nations University, and Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

The study: “Mental Capital: a preliminary study into the psychological dimension of economic development,” was commissioned by the Dutch Council for Health Research.

Weehuizen notes that while this report deals with the situation in the Netherlands, the same is happening in all modern economies.

“My research focuses on the Netherlands, but all modern knowledge economies are damaging their human capital to some extent. It is a result of the pressure to be ever more productive. In the industrial sector you can achieve that by putting in more and better machines, but in the service economy the main way to achieve this is by making people work more and more intensely. By giving workers autonomy they have to effectively self-manage and self-regulate, which is much more efficient from the firm’s perspective, but which adds substantially to the load and pressure of the worker.”

In the modern knowledge economy – in which increasing numbers of people are working in the services sector – workers need to be autonomous, flexible, adaptive, and able to continuously deal with new circumstances, tasks and knowledge. The increased interaction with customers and colleagues that this requires means that workers need to regulate their
emotions and feelings. Research shows that this is difficult for many workers, and it is leading to greater levels of stress and mental health problems.

Mental health is also a major problem in economic terms. In the Netherlands stress and work pressure are the cause of 29 % of sick leave and of 30 % of work disability. Thirty percent of the cost of health care in the Netherlands is directly or indirectly related to metal health problems like work related stress, burn out, depression and other ailments. According to the UNU-MERIT is a joint research and training centre of United Nations University, based in Tokyo, Japan, and the University of Maastricht in The Netherlands. It integrates the former UNU-Institute for New Technologies (UNU-INTECH) and the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (MERIT).

UNU-MERIT provides insights into the social, political and economic contexts within which innovation and technological change is created, adapted, selected, diffused, and improved upon. The Institute’s research and training programmes address a broad range of relevant policy questions dealing with the national and international governance of innovation, intellectual property protection, and knowledge creation and diffusion.

From United Nations University

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4 thoughts on “Mental health issues threaten ‘knowledge economy’”

  1. re: Cubicles in Europe, there are no scientific sources cited in your visionandpsychosis link. It could be descriptions of real phenomena, it could be pure gibberish, or somewhere in between. How are we to know which of these is true if there are no links to peer reviewed scientific studies?

    The description of mental health issues in the knowledge economy is a good description of a basic biological process: negative feedback. These mental health issues are not unexpected and are a process by which limits are placed on the knowledge economy, just like physical health issues place limits on a manufacturing economy.

  2. There are higher rates of mental problems in Europe because they do not use Cubicles.

    Every human who ever lived has and had subliminal sight and peripheral vision reflexes. This reflex is hard wired in to physiology. Although you can learn to ignore it the subliminal detection of threat movement in peripheral vision is not under voluntary control.

    In the 1960’s this normal feature of physiology was discovered to cause mental breaks for office workers. The cubicle solved that problem. Cubicles are designed to block side or peripheral vision for a concentrating worker.

    Today, in the Design field, Systems Furniture, this problem is thought to cause a harmless temporary episode of confusion and psychotic-like behavior. It easily accounts for the higher rates of stress related sick leave absences.


  3. A useful study for office managers.
    Brainpower can be thought of as a resource, but it’s a limited resource, like oil. Flogging your people to turn out more and more “product” will degrade the product and jam up the delivery system. Of course you can always throw away your people and hire new ones, but that gets to be expensive.

    Dan Sullivan

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