The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is taking its tolls. Let alone the grim death statistics, there are all kinds of long-term socio-economic effects, and the more recently emerging realization of substantial mental health problems. Indeed, the rise of anxiety and depression amid the pandemic is easy to comprehend: people live in isolation and amidst restrictions, disrupted routines, uncertainty over the future, and in fear of the virus itself. This Covid-based large scale ’experiment’ seems to highlight the influence of the social environment on our mental health and emphasizes the need to direct much more focus on supporting mental health. Rightfully so.
Yet, mental health during Covid times is not quite the topic I want to talk about today. After reading Johann Hari’s bestselling book ’Lost Connections´, I find the aforementioned conclusions and implications to be relevant far beyond the pandemic. In his brilliant investigation of the reasons behind mental ill-being, Johann argues, in a nutshell, that we have been overlooking these social environmental factors all along. That the high and ever-increasing share of depression and anxiety worldwide, even beyond Covid realities, cannot be explained solely by brain chemical imbalances, and that we should instead direct our focus towards the ways we live in a modern world. The Covid pandemic certainly amplified several of these environmental risks of mental ill-being, yet ‘lost connections’ will continue to be noticed even as isolation and physical distancing regulations will soften.
Disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful work and values, disconnection from the natural world, and from a hopeful and secure future are some of the causes of anxiety and depression Johann outlines. Framing this from the perspective of the world of work, I would argue that all of these causes are relevant discussion topics for any organization. As described in one of my previous blog posts, mental health issues might still be quite invisible, yet are a real problem in the workplace. We might, and in fact we should, continue to support individual efforts towards sustaining mental health. Meditation, connecting with family and friends, spending more time in nature, practicing gratefulness – this is all scientifically solid and good advice for each of us. Yet, as Johann continuously highlights in the book, it is cruel and unfair to put all responsibility for mental health on the individual and the amount of time they meditate, so to say. We need more collective action and shifts in the way the world in general, and the work environment specifically, operate. Consider for example the current condemnations of Amazon for its unhealthy work conditions. Based on public accounts of its employees, the work environment doesn’t sound like accounting for people’s basic psychological needs, including the needs of being valued, involved in decision making, having a sense of choice and freedom, and feeling secure. The same can be said about the stern realities of lower-paid Gig workers, where any worker protections are often missing.
Speaking of the lost connection to other people brings us to the notion of organizational cultures, the downsides of remote work, and the emphasis of results over relationships. I was personally struck by a recent conversation with a colleague about how little we usually allow personal aspects to seep into work. How common is it in the modern workplace to know the names of the kids of your co-workers, to routinely show interest about the nonwork lives of your colleagues, or to have met your manager’s partner?! Currently, as our work has moved into our living rooms, we tend to continuously apologize for our lives to flash across Zoom screens, be it our pets, attention-seeking kids or too homy background views. We apologize because it has been uncommon to bring our whole self—and life—into work, or at least make us more comfortable to do so. Has it served us well though?
Given Covid’s mental health toll, this important question of how our social environment supports or undermines our mental health is gaining momentum now. Quite a silver lining to the current crisis, I dare say.