Positive Mental Health – Missing a Key Ingredient?

This year the focus for Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May 2018) is on stress – a very relevant topic for our high-octane, “always on” culture.  Along with everything else, it seems the incessant demands of the chimes, pings and rings from our multiple devices keeping us indiscriminately at the beck and call of the important and irrelevant alike, isn’t helping.  And with stress being a key factor in creating mental health problems, it’s no wonder that according to the Mental Health Foundation, two-thirds of us are likely to suffer a mental health issue in our lifetime.

The many helpful suggestions for coping with stress range from things as basic as good nutrition, exercise, and taking time-out to be kind-to-self… through to supporting parents through pregnancy and early childhood… to encouraging organisations to be more proactive in developing practices and policies that reduce stress at work (mindfulness training, etc) and promote positive mental health.

But what’s being done with all the research from psychologists over the years (including Abraham Maslow’s seminal work on our hierarchy of needs) that demonstrated the link between strong personal relationships and contentment in life?  It seems there is one key ingredient missing from the positive mental health puzzle that needs to be given strategic attention by individuals, corporates and society.

If we agree that our committed, long-term personal relationships & marriages are actually what anchor us in life and allow us to go on to achieve our potential, what are we doing to invest in them and build skills to develop them?

It appears we have ignored investing in relationships, at our peril.

Sadly, the stats and surveys reveal that the rate of divorce and relationship breakdown has grown to a staggering 50% in the UK, and the shockwaves produced by the resulting trauma continue to rip through individuals, their children & families, and society at large.

Latest figures reveal the cost of family breakdown in the UK is a whopping £51bn annual bill to the taxpayer!

And, according to trend analysis done by the Marriage Foundation, the problem doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon…

The trends suggest that any child born today has only a 50/50 chance of being with both their birth parents by the time they sit down to their GCSE exams in 15 years’ time, as many are doing this very week in the UK.

Even more concerning are the mental health implications for children – teens in particular.

The same Marriage Foundation report suggested that family breakdown is the biggest factor behind the UK’s child mental health crisis.  Their analysis of almost 11,000 families found that having parents who split up was the strongest single influence on girls’ mental health in their teen years, with strong links to emotional problems. It was the joint strongest factor in teenage boys’ mental health, alongside parents’ relationship happiness, with strong links to behavioural problems.  No surprise then that the continued increase in family breakdowns over the past few decades has had a part to play in today’s increased level of mental health concerns, especially among young adults aged 18-25 years.

What if we could raise the high-water mark on relational intelligence and proactively develop better skills in building committed long-term relationships & strong stable marriages?

For almost ten years, we’ve had the research to prove that being in a healthy marriage or committed relationship actually reduces the production of stress hormones. That is, clearly and inarguably, those who are in healthy, committed relationships produce less cortisol than those who are not.  This has contributed to “a growing body of evidence showing that marriage and social support can buffer against stress”.

And a healthy relationship does more than just help people manage stressors.

A 2013 study of around 1.3 million cancer patients, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that married men and women were less likely to suffer the cancer spreading, and less likely to die from it. Other studies have shown that those in a happy relationship suffered less from heart diseasestrokemental illnessrecovered faster from major operations, and enjoyed overall greater levels of satisfaction, happiness and general health!

But, relationships, like anything else, take work and attention. While hours each week may be spent in yoga, mindfulness or at the gym increasing cardiovascular capability and strength, an incomparably small amount of time on average is spent nurturing perhaps the most influential factor of all: a healthy relationship with a spouse or long-term partner.

By investing in relationship expertise and making that expertise available to individuals, the root of the global stress epidemic and mental health concerns can be addressed, even if only in part.

Equipping people with the knowledge and understanding they need to engage positively with their partners and create a network of support at home, will allow them to better manage their health and stress-levels, and reduce the likelihood of mental health issues both for them AND for their children. 

Some companies have started to wake up to the benefits of investing in relationship skills. There are still many however who – for fear of “crossing the personal-professional divide” – remain resistant to elevating an investment in building personal relationship skills to the corporate strategic agenda.  Isn’t the real issue though, that people are expected to split themselves along this imaginary divide in the first place?!

There seems to be an unwritten rule that people need to turn up to work with a “professional façade”, editing out the fact that they have a life and people who matter to them outside of work.

And that those relationships help or hinder them in turning up to work as the best of who they are to deliver the best of what they have to offer. 

Research from as far back as 2012 unequivocally showed the clear positive correlation between quality personal relationships and work engagement, prompting CIPD President, Sir Cary Cooper to comment “The evidence is mounting that support for individuals and families enhances both employee and organisational wellbeing”.  Yet where organisations have responded, they appear to have applied the “support” only reactively, offering counselling services to employees going through challenges.  Sadly, this is often too little, too late – assuming those offerings are taken up at all.

What it means though, is that there is still a huge opportunity for corporates to benefit from proactively investing in building relationship skills that strengthen marriages and long-term committed relationships AND transfer well into the workplace.

Indeed, the same 2012 report concluded “… employers should be encouraged to view Relationship Quality as an asset, and one that requires investment.”  Not only are emotionally resilient individuals less stressed, more creative, more productive and more present, but the increased relationship capability that they bring to their workplaces delivers additional, positive, bottom-line benefits in productivity as a result of improved relationships with colleagues and clients.

So, given that long-term committed relationships and strong, stable marriages provide an emotional buffer to stress, a key factor in mental health, and that broken relationships increase the likelihood of mental health issues especially in the next generation, proactively investing in relationships really is a “no brainer”!

Doing so, however, will require a mindset shift. Yes, one that recognises the real benefits of investing in what matters most to people. But also, one that recognises the significant costs of doing nothing.

It’s time that building relationship capability for marriages and long-term committed relationships is included as a priority in the strategic agenda for individuals, corporates and government.  On all levels, it’s both socially responsible and financially wise.

Let’s have a conversation about how we can help you create a happier, healthier workforce by applying the key missing ingredient – building strong relationship capability – in your people.  Click on the link below to find out more about how we’re helping organisations build Social Health and improve Relational Intelligence in their people.

A blonde woman stands with his index fingers on his temples with her eyes closed. Behind her is the word STRESS

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