As reported in the Metro last week, the latest figures from the National Office of Statistics show that a record one in five Britons is suffering from anxiety or depression. Mental health is now a national emergency. Taboos and stigma (which are often promoted by organisational culture) may prevent us from talking about the problem, but they don’t alleviate the harm it causes.
The individual agony of clinical depression, exhaustively detailed by the late writer David Foster Wallace, is mirrored in the scale of its impact on national productivity. One study puts the annual cost of depression to the American economy at $44 billion. The epidemic may explain the mystery of why, in the UK, output per worker is falling even whilst employment recovers. As Miles Davis once sang, these days:
Blue can be the livin’ dues
We’re all a’paying
The reasons for this decline in mental well-being are complex, but there’s no doubt that years of economic stagnation and rapid technological change have a part to play. Real median wages have not increased since 2003, but rents certainly have. Stable jobs are scarce, especially for the young. Online retailing has sent the high street into a spiral of decline.
But endemic stress, anxiety and depression aren’t the inevitable ‘livin’ dues’ of today’s world. Learning professionals can and should play a key role in building mental resilience. We know that seeking help early makes a big difference. So does socialising an awareness of the warning signs. Other factors, like work/life balance, lifestyle and regular exercise are all things we can influence. The prize of doing so isn’t just a happier workforce; it’s significantly higher productivity and less time taken off.
This is why mental resilience programmes are moving to the top of the priority list for occupational health specialists in the corporate world. By making mental resilience into a key part of personal development, a well-coordinated programme can yield huge benefits. In the case of our work with Transport for London, that was a £7.8 million reduction in paid absence.
We also now understand that technology is an indispensable part of those programmes. e-Learning can’t prevent a mental breakdown, but it can make a difference – especially if it uses well researched, sensitive scenarios and tailored action plans. The privacy of an online course is also a better place than many for getting people engaged with the topic and taking action.
The knock-on effect of a widespread programme is cultural transformation, and that’s where we should be aiming. You wouldn’t walk past someone doing something blatantly unsafe at work without saying something about it, yet we routinely ignore co-workers on the edge of a mental breakdown. This is the kind of thing learning professionals can – and must – change.
At Saffron, we want to know more about how stress, depression and anxiety are affecting your organisation, and whether technology can help to address the problem. Please fill in our short survey to let us know. You’ll also be entered into a prize-draw for a touchscreen Kindle Paperwhite e-reader.
There, that might cheer you up.