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Does my workplace suffer from a mood disorder?

Ask yourself: Does my place of work cause me to feel depressed, pessimistic, stressed or anxious (or even physically ill)? Could I be working for a depressed company? Is the real reason I suffer from anxiety simply that my boss is anxious? The short answer is: it's possible and maybe even likely.

In fact many of the companies my firm and I have worked with over the years have suffered from mood disorders. There was an insurance company that was deeply depressed — eventually it went broke and was rescued by the government.

There was a large law firm which was so anxious that its reputation for excellence in black letter law would become redundant that it was totally unable to make the changes necessary for survival.

There was the high-tech concern whose employees were so concerned about their futures that the stress burned them out in their twenties — taking the enterprise with them. 

But let's start with a bit of science — I am, after all a scientist, as well as a consultant.
Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder (BD — what used to be called manic depression) can be very serious psychiatric problems. Although anxiety is sometimes not classed as a mood disorder, to all intents and purposes it is.

Companies and other organisations are merely collections of individuals who according to research are becoming increasingly prone to serious mood disorders. Some studies have indicated that at present as many as 30 per cent of workers may be suffering from one or more of them, especially depression and what is known as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). That's up from about 10 per cent a decade or so ago.

One of the features of human beings is that we are primarily social creatures who tend to take on the characteristics, and moods, of the people we most closely associate, or identify, with. Because of this such things as anxiety and depression (but not BD) are able to spread from person to person — rather like an epidemic. Pessimism and optimism function in much the same way. Pessimism is often a fellow traveller of depression. 

Pessimism, anxiety and depression are all to a large extent caused by stress — the higher the stress level in any workplace the greater the degree of pessimism and one or more mood disorders. The Hudson Institute produced a study in 2010 that predicted that by 2025 the rate of workplace stress would have increased by 200 per cent. Later studies by the US National Institute of Health have shown that this prediction is perhaps on the optimistic side. 

This growing stress has many causes but the main ones are the increase in loneliness caused by badly designed open plan and so-called "activity-based" workplaces  (which are really just excuses by employers to save on real estate), too few people to accomplish the tasks that management demands, the threat of redundancy due to digitisation and mechanisation, increased workplace bullying (itself largely stress-related), increasing competition for jobs, and companies and firms competing to gain larger slices of an ever-diminishing pie. 

The increasing level of competition in the marketplace has even led desperate businesses to hire psychopaths to lead them on the mistaken assumption that their observed determination, overt charm and good salesmanship will bring success to the enterprise. This tendency will probably increase despite the body of research showing that overall psychopathic leaders reduce the share value of the companies they run. Because psychopaths have little or no empathy and few EQ skills they tend to increase the stress, depression and pessimism levels of employees in the businesses or parts of businesses they control.

Finally, research over the last few years has increasingly shown that the mood of a business, or any organisation for that matter, overall tends to follow the mood of the leader. If that mood is positive, then the overall attitude of those working for the enterprise will be optimistic. If on the other hand he or she is anxious, depressed, or pessimistic, or if he or she is a BD sufferer (or even psychopathic), then symptoms of that disorder will tend to become pervasive within the organisation. 

An important factor in elevating optimism and reducing stress is the management style that the leader adopts. Studies have shown that by adopting what is known as a "transformational" leadership style managers and other leaders can actually greatly reduce workplace stress and even prevent employees from developing a major depressive disorder.

The transformational leadership style places more emphasis on people and their needs than on organisational goals. The transformational leader sets the tone by being true to the values the organisation nominally espouses, being an inspirational role model and being a defender of his or her followers. Transformational leadership has been shown to improve employee productivity and engagement by over 60 per cent. People are simply happier to work for a transformational leader. Unfortunately, they are becoming fewer and further between.

So what about your workplace? Does it suffer from a mood disorder? If it does it may well be in your best interest to seek other employment and not be dragged down into the black hole of its depression or anxiety.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain