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Don’t just leave it to others to look after your wellbeing

Published 6 July 2021 in Magazine • 3 min read

Mental and physical health are equally important. Yet how many of us give the former the attention it deserves? We all understand the importance of looking after our physical health, but it is harder to pick up on signs of stress and burnout and to accept that we have a problem. 

About one in five people suffered from depression last year in the UK (double the year before), with the COVID-19 pandemic placing a strain on our lives. Data from the US Centers for Disease Control show that mental health among Americans worsened during the pandemic, as it did in many parts of the world. In China, nearly a third of the population reported moderate to severe anxiety symptoms. Google searches relating to suicide, insomnia, stress and anxiety increased in Latin America after lockdowns were imposed.   

Employers are rightly taking steps to support mental health at work, with some recognizing that it will pay dividends in the long run. Happiness is associated with higher productivity and employee engagement. But it is for us to take personal responsibility for our wellbeing. It’s all too easy to blame external factors (the stress of remote working, fear of infection and social isolation) for our problems, but in placing the duty of care on society or employers, we are shirking our responsibility, and making ourselves more vulnerable and helpless. 

Personal responsibility empowers us to take charge of our wellbeing. Mental health is dynamic and changeable. The key stressors include grief, loss (of structure, identity or control), change, negative relationships, isolation, and digital overload. Burnout (chronic, unmanaged workplace stress) is an increasingly salient factor.  

Alarmingly, suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the US where rates have risen 30% since 1999. In Japan, monthly suicide rates increased by 16% during the second wave of COVID-19 between July to October of last year. An 11% increase was reported in Thailand from 2019 to the end of 2020. There are reported increases in several European countries too.The focus should be on prevention as well as treatment of mental health issues, to deal with the problems at source when they are more manageable and easier and less costly to treat.  

A clear sign of mental strain is choosing social isolation, along with emotional detachment, consistent negative relationships, hidden grief, and depression. Some experience paranoia, panic attacks, and even obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  

The tendency is for people to explain away the signs of strain (it’s just my personality, or it’s because of a work deadline), but it’s only through admitting we have a problem that the issues can be addressed. The stigma and discrimination attached to mental illness means many of us are reluctant to speak out. But we must be brave because being open and frank about our problems is an important step in overcoming them. 

Many employers are trying to smash the taboo by creating safe spaces in which employees can open up and seek support. It’s the duty of managers to identify when staff are suffering, and to help them find the right support, such as coaching or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). However, none of this will work without personal responsibility and the strength to seek support.  

Individuals can nurture their own wellbeing by ensuring that they take enough physical exercise, that they eat and sleep well, all with the goal of achieving a better work-life balance. It’s important to manage or stop negative relationships and to have a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.  

Enjoyment in everyday activities can be found by setting clear goals, feeling a sense of control, receiving regular feedback, and tackling challenging tasks with complete focus. Wellbeing is always possible, even during a global health and economic emergency.   


george kohreiser

George Kohlrieser

Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership program. He serves as a consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Amer Sports, Borealis, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, Hitachi, IBM, IFC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, NASA, Navis, Nestlé, Nokia, Pictet, Rio Tinto, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, Toyota, and UBS.


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