- Mental health is almost always seen as an individual problem that requires individual solutions. In reality, however, this is also a problem for groups and organizations.
- A legacy of the COVID-19 crisis could revolutionize the way we measure mental health, fueling the recognition that our wellbeing is highly dependent on the groups we belong to.
- This would also encourage positive aspects – and help us understand what makes groups thrive.
The COVID-19 crisis has seriously damaged mental health around the world. Many children who missed out on time with friends and school have paid a heavy price and many older people have felt isolated. The challenges and solutions are well documented by the International Public Policy Observatory on COVID.
However, the crisis also sheds light on the strain on employees. In the UK, new evidence on health workers shows that nearly half of those working in intensive care units have had severe anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or harmful alcohol use. There may be similar patterns in other groups at the front, but we just don’t know. And this shows a bigger problem when looking at mental health. It is almost always seen as an individual problem that requires individual solutions. In reality, however, this is also a problem for groups and organizations.
In everyday conversation we often speak of toxic cultures and dysfunctional organizations. We know that people who join such organizations are deeply affected by them: collective mental health affects individual mental health. There can be a pervasive culture in which employees are depressed, deluded, or prone to compulsive behaviors.
The best place to start for troubleshooting problems is usually finding ways to see or map them. Unfortunately, we lack strict definitions of what these collective mental states might look like. Despite an explosion of psychometrics and surveys, we lack good and comparable measures.
Psychiatry has a powerful tool to solve this problem on an individual level. The DSM is the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, which forms the foundation of American psychiatry. It is revised regularly – the latest version is DSM5 – and is intended to capture the latest state of knowledge.
A lot can be challenged in this. It relies on a fairly weak evidence base (only a tiny percentage of psychology experiments are successfully replicated); arbitrary categories are often used; there is a lack of solid knowledge of causal mechanisms; and it’s prone to ideological prejudice (homosexuality wasn’t removed from the DSM until the early 1970s – previously it was treated as a disease).
But at least it offers some coherence. We could do better for groups and companies. In recent years, survey data on anxiety, depression, and optimism has grown rapidly. A treasure trove of data on mood, beliefs, and anger is now available through social media. The data is rarely simple – and there will always be a gap between what people say and what they feel. However, this sea of data provides a good starting point and opportunities that were unimaginable a decade or two ago, some of which are pretty scary, from analyzing corporate emails to analyzing facial expressions during team meetings.
click to enlarge
People report that the pandemic has negatively affected their emotional and mental health.
Image: Ipsos World Economic Forum
What could be the categories for new collective mental health cards? An obvious one is depression. Common definitions of depression include being unhappy or hopeless, having low self-esteem, and not finding joy in the things you normally enjoy. Our interest should be to observe this in groups or entire populations where the normal distribution curve has shifted, although there is a wide range of levels of depression.
Deception looks relevant too. The Cleveland Clinic defines delusional disorder as “a type of severe mental illness in which a person cannot make out what really is what is being presented” combined with “an irritable, angry, or bad mood and hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling”) Things that aren’t really there) ‘. Again, this is quite common in groups and even nations.
A third example is compulsive behavior, in which an undesirable, intrusive, and often distressing thought, image, or urge repeatedly invades people’s minds, distressing them, and is associated with repetitive behaviors. This seems to be evident at the group or collective level.
Fourth, PTSD is clearly relevant – especially for groups such as military or medical personnel and emergency services who are often exposed to traumatic situations. For example, a decade ago, under the direction of Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, the US Army introduced extensive programs to combat PTSD that use the language of psychological fitness and resilience. Here too, however, the focus was heavily on individual diagnosis and treatment.
Each of these conditions – depression, delusion, compulsive behavior, and trauma – could be diagnosed at the aggregate or average level. However, we would expect large differences between groups and organizations. Status and power correlate fairly well with measures of physical and mental health. With new measurement methods, both the differences and the average values must therefore be taken into account.
The importance of such differences was highlighted in recent Angus Deaton and Ann Case research on Diseases of Despair, which showed the severe decline in mental and physical health among middle-aged men in the United States whose status had fallen.
Social innovators address the world’s greatest challenges, ranging from inequality to education for girls to disaster relief, that affect us all, but especially vulnerable and excluded groups. To have maximum impact and address the root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favorable policy choices, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs and access to decision makers.
The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship supports more than 400 late-stage social innovators. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation aims to highlight and expand on proven and effective models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and broaden the field by showing world-class examples, replication models, and cutting-edge research on social innovation.
Meet the world changers: Social Innovators of 2020. Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and members and business members of the World Economic Forum is invited to nominate outstanding social innovators. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.
Many companies use feel-good indicators that cover levels of anxiety, job satisfaction, impulse surveys, and net promoter scores as a measure of engagement. Two widely validated questions that could be used as standard parts of future action are: “In the past three months, have you never felt well enough to do your job according to your normal standard but still participated in the work?” And “Do you feel energized by your work?”
If we had better policies, we could use them not only to address negative patterns, but also to nurture positive ones – to understand what makes groups thrive. This was the message of the “positive psychology” movement, and many nations now measure happiness and offer important insights. The best predictors on the annual World Happiness Report are survey responses to whether you have had friends or relatives you can rely on during a crisis. We might expect this to be important for businesses and groups as well. An organization I helped found – Action for Happiness, for example – now has very strong evidence of how to increase both wellbeing and social connectedness.
A legacy of the COVID-19 crisis could be a revolution in mental health measurement and the realization that our own mental health is very much dependent on the groups we belong to. Anecdotes about toxic employers and deluded nations could be more data based. With new measures, we could start using this data to improve not only our individual mental health, but our collective mental health as well.
This article is part of a Wellbeing series launched by the Forum and the Schwab Foundation to support the human aspects of social entrepreneurship and unlock the potential for social change.