Mental Health and Wellbeing – an holistic approach

I’ve been a practising psychologist for almost 30 years and in and among a varied career I’ve spent a lot of time running workshops, training and therapy sessions to help organisations and individuals cope with the stresses and strains of our modern world. As time has gone on it’s become more and more apparent to me that it’s virtually impossible for us human beings to separate out completely what happens in our personal lives from what happens at work. We do not function in a discrete bubble – either personally or professionally. What goes on in one area of our life impacts on other areas.

In the early days of my career working on managing stress was dealt with in slightly different ways, depending on whether I was working in a one to one therapeutic session with an individual, or working with a group/department in an organisation. I suspect it boiled down to analysing structures and systems for the corporate side of things, whilst looking at appropriate strategies for individuals. I can also see that the training/therapeutic work was very much based on a negative premise – i.e. there is something wrong and we need to fix it, relying heavily on biological and psychological models.

More recently there has been a shift in the way we address and manage stress. We talk about mental health – and rather than ill health we focus on wellbeing. This means taking into consideration social and environmental factors as well as considering interpersonal relationships. All of these need to be considered, whether we are looking at a one to one situation or working with groups and teams.

The World Health Organisation describes (good) mental health being a state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, is able to make a contribution to his or her community (which may be the workplace, family or neighbourhood) and has the capacity to develop and maintain healthy relationships. It’s evident from this definition that if we are to sustain good mental health we need to adopt a much broader analysis of what we need to do to promote it than there has been in the past.

Research suggests that the most powerful childhood predictor of adult life-satisfaction is a child’s emotional health. Staggeringly the majority of mental health problems emerge during childhood and 75% of them are present by the age of 24 years. So as an adult how we’ve been brought up by our families, the environment, community and society where we were born and raised has a tremendous impact on how we will cope with pressure and difficulties as an adult.

Not only are positive external factors needed for our wellbeing, but our own internal resources are equally important. Our DNA and our genes (genome) determine aspects of our personality and temperament. For example, some of us will be more resilient than others and able to cope; not only that but life’s experiences can impact on how well we deal with pressure. So we’re looking at a combination of nurture, nature and life events that will determine our ability to handle what comes our way.

In a sense it’s not rocket science… If we are going through a bad time at home our distress is going to impact in some way on our work. Similarly if works demands are outstripping our capacity to work to the best of our ability, that’s not only going to impact our work, but can also cause problems with our family. Thus a vicious cycle is born. If we are going to work towards having a workforce that is productive, settled and dependable we need to adopt an holistic model for dealing with any indicators of poor performance and productivity, high staff turnover and high levels of sickness and absence.

We need to look at the systems, structures and culture of an organisation to identify whether we can improve the work climate and environment in its widest sense. We need to look into our training and development programmes to see where there may be gaps. Above all we need to look at our workforce. If they do not have the personal ‘tools’ to deal with the demands of the workplace then with the best will in the world the organisational ‘stuff’ will only partially hit the spot.

Elaine Douglas

CPsychol AFBPS CsI FCIPD