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Feelin’ ‘kind of blue’? Why learning professionals are getting serious about mental resilience


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 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 is 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.

2 Responses

  1. Is technology part of the problem?

    Hi there,

    I read your post with great interest – as mental health issues are becoming more commonplace it is key that L&D professionals (alongside other HR and Management colleagues) do consider how the issue can be tackled, not least because of the impact these have on an organisation's performance.

    I was interested in the suggested solution of using technology to deliver learning on resilience etc.  I do think there are benefits to doing this and L&D professionals should consider this as an alternative or option for this type of learning.

    However it got me thinking about what impact technology is having on mental health issues in general and whether or not it is in fact part of the problem.

    Email is now used in most organisations as the primary method of communication (even to people who are sitting in the same room!) so individuals have lost part of the social interaction they would once have had at work, perhaps causing them to feel more isolated, or meaning that colleagues don't noticed when there is an issue.

    Use of tablets and smart phones mean that people are working longer hours and don't have the same "down time" as they once did.  It's hard to ignore the call of the little flashing light on your blackberry, even if it is after 9pm at night!  Does this mean that people aren't switching off mentally and re-charging as they once were?

    I just wonder how organisations strike a balance to ensure employees get all the benefits of using technology without it adding to the problem.F







  2. Thanks for the comment Fiona!

    Hi Fiona,

    Thanks for your comment. Technology may well be part of the problem – it's often been said that as we become more connected we become more isolated, and worse at communicating in the real world. There's not really a specific or simple link between staring at screens and mental health issues (in the same way, say, that smoking is linked with cancer) – the situation is too complex – but you can't ignore the fact that rise of the information society has been accompanied by a rise in resilience-issues. Many people, of course, say the exact opposite: that technology has been a contravening factor to atomisation processes, and re-connected many people who would otherwise have to suffer in silence.

    Another thing is that whilst information technology has saved a huge amount of time, the flipside is that it allows for the intensification of the rate at which our mental resources are exploited. Your example of the continuously flashing light on a Blackberry is a good one. Most people now begin working at 6 or 7am, as the first thing they do is check their emails!

    On the other hand, whilst behavioural culture is influenced heavily by technology, it's not superseded by it. If culture is open, honest and supportive then technology should make it possible to enhance those benefits – and where the culture is wrong, we can try to use technology in a certain way to change it. There's no necessary contradiction in an e-learning course or mobile toolkit that reminds people NOT to check their emails all evening, or to speak to people in person wherever possible. Just think about apps used to 'disconnect' your device from the world so you can get some work done!

    We definitely agree with you that a critical view of technology should always be part of the discussion on resilience – since the connected world is here to stay. Online has some pretty distinct benefits for mental resilience topics, but should it replace face-to-face, human, interaction? Absolutely not! It's more like a a catalyst which might make the overall blend more effective.

    PM us or drop an email to [email protected] if you want to discuss this more.

    All the best,

    The Saffron Team

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