What is Organizational Mental Health?

Our organization’s theme for May is “Mental Health Matters.” In our world of BizPsych we are deeply involved in and committed to supporting overall organizational health. In our work this typically means things like:

  • Productivity
  • Efficiency and effectiveness
  • Collaboration
  • Morale
  • Satisfaction
  • Healthy life span development
  • Effective systems and procedures, etc.

However if we try to focus on the mental health of an organization – what exactly could that mean?  A dictionary search of “mental health” brings up a couple definitions:

“psychological well-being and satisfactory adjustment to society and to the ordinary demands of life”

the condition of being sound mentally and emotionally that is characterized by the absence of mental disorder (as neurosis or psychosis) and by adequate adjustment especially as reflected in feeling comfortable about oneself, positive feelings about others, and ability to meet the demands of life”

For now, removing references to “psychological, mental, and emotional,” which will reference a little later, we can begin to piece together aspects of mental health in business:

  1. A satisfactory adjustment to society and demands of life – The organization has a legitimate place in meeting needs of groups of people i.e. “society.” The organization adjusts according to its place or position in the social order and adjusts to the needs of the society it serves. A great example is Facebook. This organization is constantly challenged to adjust its practices as it shifts in impact and importance to the society. What began as an informal social networking interest on a college campus has now become a society changing force with billions of dollars impact. Is Facebook mentally healthy?
  2. Absence of neurosis or psychosis – Is the organization obsessed with its internal workings and anxieties? This may be characterized by fearfulness to make any moves or changes forward. The organization becomes paralyzed and ineffective. The organization may be so stuck on a single definition of itself that it fails to adjust, or is so insecure about “who” it is that it constantly redefines itself so no one else knows who it is. These “neurotic” organizations don’t thrive. In order to thrive they must address these neuroses.  A step beyond this is the organization gone psychotic – confusing internal reality with objective reality. Enron, Bernie Madhoff – say no more…
  3. Feeling comfortable about oneself – This can be reflected in the culture of the workers of the organization. Ever been to Discount Tire? The employees typically appear to feel empowered, have ownership over their work, and make you, the customer, feel comfortable. Comfort is a rather elusive term as applied to business. However, an organization that is comfortable “about itself” should be reflected in a workforce that is comfortable and proud of the organization.
  4. Positive feelings about others – Do we care about our customers? Do we feel positive about the contributions we are making to our customers? Do we feel positive about the contributions we are making to the community? Numerous small nonprofits come to mind. In addition, we work with several health care organizations; the commitment to the patients they serve gets them through many rocky times.
  5. Ability to meet the demands of life – In addition to what is stated in #1 above, perhaps this is like organizational “work-life balance.” We must meet the demands of our customers and at the same time make money, keep the doors open, survive the recession, grow and change, and not become so stressed that health declines. Look into your organization and question if it is achieving this balance. What needs to shift to achieve balance?

One note about the “mental” and “psychological” language in the definitions of mental health. (Don’t you hate it when the definition contains the word that is being defined?)  We ran across a wonderful CD series in our research for a health care project that BizPsych was involved in. It is entitled “Mindfulness and the Brain” and is essentially a conversation between Jack Kornfield, the Buddhist Psychologist who has specialized in mindfulness meditation practices, and Dan Siegel, an Interpersonal Neurobiologist. In the course of this discussion Dr. Siegel references that despite the thousands of “mental health” practitioners and volumes of “mental health literature” there seems to be no shared definition of the “mind” (presumably responsible for our mental health vs. merely the brain). He offers a definition which he states has been accepted and agreed upon by a good number of stubborn academics. The definition he offers is that the mind is “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information” (Mindfulness and the Brain 2010). If this is an acceptable definition of the mind, then perhaps the psychology or “mind” of the organization is that somewhat intangible “heart and soul” of the organization that is the shared relationships and how they regulate the energy and information flow of the business. Supporting relationships then, is key to achieving the balance suggested in the mental health applied definitions in this blog.

One last note: The Webster Dictionary search did not yield a definition for “mental health.” The only thing that came up was “mental health day.” This was defined as “a day that an employee takes off from work in order to relieve stress or renew vitality.” So then, how does an organization take a mental health day?

Patrick Hiester, LPC
Vice President, BizPsych 

Reference: Sounds True Audio Learning Course. Mindfulness and the Brain: A professional Training ion the Science & Practice of Meditative Awareness. Jack Kornfield, PhD and Daniel Siegel, MD. Sounds True 2010.

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