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Is poor mental health and well-being contagious?

May 20, 2021 - 7 min read

It is heartening to see the attention being paid to mental health in the workplace, especially as we begin to emerge from an extremely difficult year across the globe. But the pandemic shouldn’t be the only reason to focus on employee mental health.

Even before Covid-19, workplace suicides were on the rise, up 11% in 2018 from 2017

Furthermore, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 19% of US adults experience an anxiety disorder over the course of one year, and 7% of US adults have a major depressive episode. In June 2020, a staggering 1 in 4 adults aged 18-24 said they considered suicide in June 2020.

But severe mental health is not the only form of mental health that deserves attention and support. 55% of the workforce is languishing: not clinically diagnosed but not doing well either. 

Interestingly, wherever we are on the spectrum of mental health, new science is suggesting it can impact the entire organization. 

What the data say

New research published in Administrative Science Quarterly suggests that poor mental well-being can act like an infectious disease, spreading to other people.  

The researchers studied 250,000 employees over a period of 12 years. They found that when organizations start out with a high prevalence of mental disorders in their workforce, they “implant” depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders into their people. In other words, the other employees are more likely to also develop depression, anxiety, and stress-related conditions. 

What’s more, even if an employee leaves the organization, they can act like a carrier and infect the next organization. When a newcomer arrives to an organization with low mental well-being, they bring with them the risk of low levels of mental well-being developing in their new coworkers too. 

It turns out that managers are particularly influential, “super-spreaders” who spread low mental well-being more easily.

How does mental well-being contagion work? There are four possible ways:

  1. Social contagion. We tend to respond to others in the same ways they present themselves to us. If a colleague is upset, we tend to feel, judge, and act in similar ways. 
  2. Emotional contagion. We tend to synchronize our emotional displays to the expression of others. For example, if a colleague is depressed, fearful, or stressed, and we are exposed to that over a long period of time, we will tend to experience similar emotions. 
  3. Cognitive contagion. We tend to adopt the same judgment patterns as those around us. Other people provide us cues that we then use to construct and interpret events. If a colleague is exhausted and attributes it to the demands of work, we may adopt a similar judgment and attribution about ourselves. 
  4. Behavioral contagion. We are influenced by other people’s actions. For example, behaviors that are not necessarily supportive of mental well-being like withdrawal or avoidance, are easily mimicked and transferred to others. 

Over years, the contagion effects can create markedly different levels of well-being at the organizational level. 

Furthermore, the effects of small shifts in mental well-being in the organization can be significant. The graphic below depicts the mental well-being breakdown of a company with a slightly higher than average rate of severely low and languishing mental health according to research from BetterUp Labs. We modeled the trajectory of this company (Organization A) relative to the trajectory of a company with a slightly more favorable mental health composition than the average (Organization B). You can see how the mental well-being inside of each organization looks over time. And how different Organization A –who started out just slightly less well– looks from B at the end. 

Why it matters

What struck me about this study was how salient it is that mental health needs to be a part of the conversation across the employee life cycle. From hiring to off-boarding, it is in the best interest of the organization to invest in mental health. 

It also makes clear that more attention needs to be paid to the development and support of managers given their outsized impact on the mental health and well-being of their teams and their organizations.

We also have work to do to get accessible, scalable support into the hands of more people and remove barriers to support seeking. So many efforts to support mental health in the workplace end up with low engagement rates and, in turn, the efforts fail. Many employees are left feeling like they still are not getting what they need. 

But, if we can bring support into the habit patterns of employees, make support seeking “normal” and encouraged, and scale that support across the mental well-being continuum to include not just those with a clinical status but also those who are languishing, that is how we can start to shift the entire composition.

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Published May 20, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Dr. Erin Eatough is an occupational health psychologist who has published research on employee well-being in over 30 outlets such as the Journal of Applied Psychology and has been featured in media outlets such as Harvard Business Review. Erin currently serves BetterUp in translating data to insight and helps to bring the science of BetterUp to life through content marketing. Erin received her Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of South Florida.

Before BetterUp, Erin was a professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband and two young children. When not working, you can find her and her family on adventures in their tiny home on wheels, a converted Sprinter van.

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