Fasten your seatbelts: the year ahead may be even rougher than 2022.
Dr Etienne van der Walt, neurologist and CEO of Neurozone, focuses on the mental health pandemic that is unfolding, and why leaders need to care about how people feel.
Despite our expectations for an easier ride, 2022 was tough: the aftershocks of the pandemic continued to play havoc across the globe; Europe and world markets were thrown into disarray when Russia declared war on Ukraine; and natural disasters, driven largely by the escalating effects of the climate crisis, ravaged communities and countries. Economically, things were especially volatile — countries, multinationals, businesses and individuals found themselves increasingly vulnerable and under pressure.
At a recent end-of-year gathering, I asked my friends — many of whom are small business owners and entrepreneurs — how they had experienced 2022. ‘It was the worst year ever,’ they said. They weren’t referring to their company’s financial performance or output or even the energy crisis currently crippling much of the world. Everyone was talking about their emotions.
And the reality is 2023 is likely to dish up more of the same stress, uncertainty and tumult — if not in ever-more intense and despairing helpings. As analytics company Gallup’s survey of global unhappiness shows, negative emotions continue to climb to unprecedented levels. It would be easy to blame this on the effects of the global pandemic, but the world’s ‘unhappiness problem’ — an aggregate of stress, sadness, anger, worry and physical pain — began long before Covid. As you can see from the graph below, negative emotions have been trending upwards for the past decade; this has all the warning lights of a mental health pandemic.
Clearly, it is already as bad as we thought. The challenge now is for leaders to figure out why it is this way. Unravelling the root cause, we may be able to come up with strategies on how to respond.
Humans are adaptive and our experiences since early 2020 have demonstrated that we, when facing a common enemy, are able to respond appropriately to massive uncertainty and change. However, it is the speed, complexity and unequal spread of change — especially technological change — that I believe is a major accelerator of the world’s mental health pandemic. And deep down at its root lies a disconnect in humanity today that I believe can be fixed with a good dose of global visionary people-centered leadership. We may live in a world that has never been more connected through technology, but we are essentially emotionally abandoned. It is this sense of disconnection — from ourselves, from each other and from society — that is a primary contributor to the fracture and feelings of disconnect.
Our sense of belonging, identity and meaning is determined very much by our interactions with others. The need to belong is, for social animals like humans, fundamental. Our brains gauge our sense of social safety to evaluate how biologically and physically safe we are, key indicators of wellbeing. People who have strong social relationships are healthier and tend to live longer than those who are socially isolated. In fact, research shows that the single best predictor of health and wellbeing as well as future longevity is the number and quality of close friendships a person has.
A lack of belonging affects human mental and physical health. Neuroscience suggests social disconnection may be processed in the brain in the same way as the threat of physical harm. When our social relationships are weak or disconnected, we have greater risks for depression, disturbed sleep, lower immunity and even shorter lifespans. The sense of belonging may be just as important as food and shelter for ensuring our survival and abilities to thrive. And let’s not forget that healthy interconnectedness will improve the ways we spread our resources and build capacities globally.
To face the challenges of what the coming year is sure to bring, we need resilience, the capacity to bounce back from adversity with intention, learning and growth. And there is no doubt we need each other. The need for collective resilience will be even more obvious in 2023. Collective resilience embodies a common purpose, taking responsibility to distribute our resources sensibly and to build human capacity. Collective resilience will always remain a leadership responsibility. I challenge you as a leader to cultivate a Collective Resilience Mindset in 2023!