How organizations can help fight depression

Last night I finished the book “Lost Connections. Uncovering the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions” by Johann Hari. At the same time, I had become aware of NBA campaign, at the ads during the playoff matches, creating awareness about mental health (here on Youtube). Also, I have been confronted by depression, both at a personal level, myself (therefore my interest on this book) my family and my friends, and also in my job, where I see colleagues and students struggle with anxiety and depression.

Reading the book triggered a question, how responsible are companies and business in the prevalence of anxiety and depression in the western world (18,1% of the American population, according to the ADAA, 350 million people worldwide according to the WHO)?

In industrial or modern societies (as opposed to traditional societies, such as the ones we find in less economically developed countries) most of us work for a living, we spend most of our lives working, what we do, and what happens in our work environment affects how we defines ourselves. Working has substituted almost all the other forms of social connections that we have had in the past, and that still less industrialized or less modern societies still have (religion, tribes…) as seen in the Amish chapter in the book).

According to Hari, there are nine lost connections which are responsible for depression or anxiety (disconnections from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world, from a hopeful and secure future). Among those, five of them (disconnect from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from status and respect, from a hopeful and secure future) are very related to our work lives and to what happens around our work environment.

Also, among the “reconnections” he prescribes in his book, there are some who are relevant to how companies and business are run: obviously reconnection to meaningful work, but also overcoming addiction to self, as according to what Hari explains in his book, a capitalistic consumption society drives us towards focusing on extrinsic values (own more, have more, be more) which lead to depression and anxiety.

I think that business should examine their role in developing mental health in the society, as a way to become more responsible citizens.

In the decades since the ENRON scandal in 2001, companies have become much more aware of their impact in society (reference) the “triple bottom line” (financial, but also social and environmental) has been adopted by some companies (you can find a good summary by The Economist here)… following the direction of asking companies and business to be better citizens, maybe a mental health aspect should be added to the social element of the triple bottom line.

Companies should start asking themselves, first how do they make their employees feel, whether the culture and the practices inside their facilities contribute to vital aspects of mental health such as feeling respected, feeling empowered, providing them with meaning and helping them feel their future is secure.

And second, companies and business should also ask themselves how they feel the consumers to which they address their products and services feel. Do their communication campaigns feed on their insecurities? Are they fueling the belief that by having more, they will feel better?

My guess is that if those questions were asked, a lot of the answers, for most of the companies, will be negative… which would put companies and business at the heart of the “depression epidemic” in the industrial or modern societies. I believe they can no longer turn their backs on this reality and that they should react before it is too late. A depressed society is a dying society, which will bring the companies and business down with it… if not for their responsibility as citizens, companies and business should react to this for their own sustainability and start thinking about their role in the mental health of the people around them.