The Global Mental Health Epidemic and What It Means For The Future of Workplace Safety and Security

The Global Mental Health Epidemic and What It Means For The Future of Workplace Safety and Security

October 30, 2019

When the World Economic Forum, in partnership with Marsh & McLennan Cos. and Zurich Insurance Group, released its global survey of business leaders earlier this year, the media immediately focused on cyberattacks as the leading risk facing businesses today.

If only that was true.

In fact, the Regional Risks for Doing Business 2019 study ranks cyberattacks 5th in terms of likelihood and 7th in terms of overall impact. What business leaders should be worrying about are the safety and security risks stemming from a seismic shift in the prevalence of mental health disorders around the world and the negative impacts that technology is having on peoples’ outlook and vision of the future.

“For many people…this is an increasingly anxious, unhappy and lonely world. Anger is increasing and empathy appears to be in decline,” the report states. “Anger is commonly referenced as the defining emotion of the zeitgeist. Some suggest this is an ‘age of anger,’ noting a ‘tremendous increase in mutual hatred.’

Those are perhaps the most profound conclusions of the 107-page report and they forecast significant challenges for workplace safety and security in the coming years.

Research by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that the global economic impact of mental disorders in 2010 was $2.5 trillion, with indirect costs (lost productivity, early retirement, etc…) outstripping direct costs (diagnosis and treatment) by a ratio of around 2:1.

Worldwide, 700 million people are estimated to have a mental disorder, according to the report. In the U.S., the percentage of the total population with depression continues to increase, particularly among young people aged 12 to 17 (increasing from 5.7 % to 12.7%). The trend is particularly pronounced for American girls, with one in five reporting a major depressive episode in a 2016 survey. The rate of self-harm for girls aged 10 to 14 nearly tripled between 2009 and 2015. The suicide rate for 15- to 19-year-olds increased by 59% over the same period.

In fact, a recent study by Harvard Medical School revealed that the suicide rate rose by 47 percent among teens age 15 to 19 and 36 percent among those 20 to 24. That’s well above the 30 percent increase seen across all age groups.

“Our message is that we need to be more aware of both sexes and all age groups, and we think that 15 to 19 is an especially important age group because it’s very dynamic and they’re very affected by changes in culture, by social media and by drug use,” said Oren Miron, the lead researcher at Harvard, in an interview with the LiveSafe Prevention Podcast.

The role that increasing anger and polarization in society plays in peoples’ outlook on life is startling. According to the WEF report, 68 percent of Americans reported being angry at least once per day. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that almost one-third of respondents stopped talking to a family member over the 2016 presidential election.

Safety, security and stability in the workplace could also suffer, according to the WEF report. “A world of increasingly angry people would be likely to generate volatile electoral results and to increase the risk of social unrest. If empathy were to continue to decline the risks might be even starker.”

The combination of anger, depression and other factors seems to be having an impact on whether or not people have a positive or negative outlook on the future. This is particularly true for Western industrialized nations. Sixty percent of people in France and 30 percent in the U.S. expect to live a worse life than their parents, according to the WEF report. “Only 5% of survey respondents in China expect to live a worse life than their parents.”

Some studies are pointing to technology as a major cause of loneliness and social isolation.

“Another potential concern is that technology is leading to a decline in empathy, the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another,” warns the WEF report. One study of students in the United States found that levels of empathy had fallen by 48% between 1979 and 2009; however, possible explanations for this other than the greater use of personal technologies include increasing materialism and changes in parenting practices.

The negative impacts of technology and automation are also evident in the workplace. According to a survey of full-time employees in 155 countries, just 15% feel “highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work.” In fact, globally, a higher proportion of employees—18%—were found to be actively disengaged, defined as “resentful and acting out their unhappiness,” the WEF report states.

“Evidence from the workplace reinforces concerns about growing problems with mental health. In the United Kingdom, an independent review found that while sickness related absences overall fell by more than 15% between 2009 and 2017, absences related to mental health problems increased by 5%,” according to the WEF report.

Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks Perception Survey 2018–2019.


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