Mental Capital and Wellbeing

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Author: Cary L. Cooper
University of Lancaster, UK
Cary L. Cooper, CBE, is Distinguished professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, England; and Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences (comprised of 41 learned societies of around 87000 social scientists).

The UK Government Office for Science helps to develop evidence-based policy, through their Foresight programme, on a range of topics from infectious diseases to flooding to food security. A couple of years ago they initiated a project to explore mental capital and wellbeing, because the costs of mental ill health were estimated in England alone to be £77b per annum. And with the increasing costs of dementia, currently around £19b, but estimated to grow over the next couple of decades to over £50b because of people living substantially longer (with the doubling of 65 and tripling of 80 year olds over the same period), the overall cost will grow exponentially in most countries.

Mental capital was conceived metaphorically as the bank account of the mind, which is debited or credited throughout the life course, from childhood to old age. The purpose of this major programme was to identify what depletes and what enhances the mental capital, and ultimately the wellbeing of people in early childhood, in their families, in their schools, in their communities, in the workplace and in later life (Beddington, et al, 2008). Over 400 scientists throughout the world were involved in carrying out nearly 90 science reviews (Cooper, et al, 2009), and from that interventions and polices were developed in conjunction with the relevant stakeholders like the major government departments, employer bodies, trade unions, third sector and voluntary bodies, charities and the like. Once the evidence was configured into policy and potential interventions, these were then submitted to a team of economists to carry out cost-benefit analyses, to determine what the return would be for the investment to deal with the particular intervention.

There were a range of proposed interventions and policies, many of which were taken to the appropriate government departments to consider, a number of which were actioned (Foresight, 2008). In terms of early childhood, for example, it was found that roughly 7%-10% of children suffer from dyslexia or dyscalulia (number blindness, ), but if their learning difficulties are not identified early enough, it can adversely affect their wellbeing later in life, which has major costs for government down the line in terms of benefits, the criminal justice system, etc. If we look at the other end of the life cycle, with an aging population in most countries, society will have an enormous bill for the treatment of dementia down the line, unless we can identify the symptoms early enough and provide aids to cognitive enhancement. We provide children with computers in schools for example,e but we don’t provide the elderly with computers so that they can develop social networks with others and keep their cognitive facilities engaged in an effort to stave off dementia.

In the workplace, the science indicates, for example, that how an individual is managed can have a profound effect on mental wellbeing. Those who experience a bullying or autocratic management style can be badly damaged (Einarsen, et al, 2003). Even those who are not bullied but managed by persistent fault-finding rather than by praise and reward regime, can suffer from stress-related outcomes. Yet, there is little training of managers in terms of their social and interpersonal skills, with more emphasis on their knowledge competencies rather than their personal competencies. This can be overcome by government encouraging employers to do the appropriate social skill training, by partnering with companies to jointly fund this kind of training. Another issue that is causing working people problems, is the long working hours cultures in many businesses, with the evidence that if people work consistently long hours it will have negative health impact (Burke & Cooper, 2008). What we need is more flexible working arrangements, which the evidence shows increases job satisfaction, decreases stress levels and increases productivity (although more research is needed in this area). The cost benefit analysis shows that if you introduce the ‘right to request’ flexible working arrangements to all and not just those with children, you will get nearly three times what you invest.

The science reviews, the policies associated with them and the cost benefit analyses can found in Cooper, et al (2009) and in Foresight (2008). This blog is only a taster of some of the ideas that appeared in the largest investigation in the field of mental capital and wellbeing ever undertaken. We must all remember what John Ruskin, the great British social reformer of the 19th Century, “in order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it”. Gross National Wellbeing, as both Prime Ministers Cameron and President Sarkozy have highlighted, is the challenge for the 21st Century.

Beddington, J., Cooper, et al (2008). Mental wealth of nations. Nature, 455 (23), pp. 1057-1060.
Burke, R. & Cooper, C.L. (2008). The Long Working Hours Culture. Yorkshire: Emerald Publishing.
Cooper, C.L., Field, J., Goswami, U., Jenkins, R., & Sahakian,B. (2009). Mental Capital and Wellbeing. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D. & Cooper, C.L. (2003). Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace. London: Taylor & Francis.
Foresight (2008). Mental Capital and Wellbeing. London: Government Office of Science, Department of Business, Innovation and Skills).

Written by jhcadmin

June 17, 2011 at 11:36 am

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