There is growing evidence that people, young and old, are suffering more from mental health problems than ever before. And well-intended movements are trying to help them cope better with the challenges of modern life.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently asked medical experts to produce guidelines on how much time young people should spend on social media. That followed more evidence about its negative impact on mental health.
But are guidelines, or knowledge, enough to help us change? To understand the answer to this we should consider what drives our behaviour e.g. excessive phone usage.
We increasingly understand the power of habits in our everyday lives. Prominent scientists believe that at least 98% of our behaviour (thoughts and actions) is unconscious or mindless. This includes reading. For example, to make sense of words it deosn’t mttaer in what order the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny ipmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pclae.
Some habits are helpful to health, happiness and performance. Others are unhelpful. For example, beating yourself up, getting stressed, procrastinating, or frequent phone checking. The more you practice each habit the more powerful your unhelpful behaviour becomes.
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If we want to help people to improve mental health we need to help them to change their habits. Unfortunately there is no compelling data that shows simply telling people what to do leads to sustainable behaviour change.
One recent example of this is the Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) movement. Its intentions are highly commendable. However, a report from the Health and Safety Executive concluded that there was no evidence such training improved the management of mental health in workplaces. The research did show consistent evidence that MHFA training raises employees’ awareness of mental illness. But it also showed there was no evidence that the introduction of MHFA training has improved the organisational management of mental health in workplaces.
There are other examples of health guidelines, or knowledge, that do not seem to have the desired effect. For example, the government has worked hard to make people aware they need to eat five-a-day (portions of fruit or vegetables), exercise properly (e.g. 10, 000 steps per day), and prioritise sleep. In fact most people now know more about the importance of improving these areas. Yet the NHS reportedly spends £11 billion per year treating lifestyle-related illnesses.
These examples support other data showing that just knowing what to do does not lead to sustainable behaviour change.
Research also shows that knowing alone can sometimes even paralyse behaviour change. Especially when the change is perceived as too difficult to achieve. Instead of taking action, people tend to block out the message, or deny it applies to them.
What is the solution? In our own behaviour change work with hundreds of organisations and tens of thousands of people we have found two elements that are essential for success. First people need to learn how their brain works, so they understand that their unhelpful behaviour, like mental illness, is driven by habits that can be modified. Secondly people need to be empowered to take small steps to build new helpful habits that allow them to be healthier, happier and at their best more often.
Compelling sets of data – from some of the world’s most successful companies – show this two-pronged strategy improves both workplace well-being and organisational performance. It is why more and more organisations are working with us to adopt this approach.
Giving people guidelines about how much time they should spend on social media is a fantastic starting point. But it is not enough and could do more harm than good. We also need to teach people how to build new helpful daily habits, one step at a time. This way they can improve the way they use social media and much more besides, to help them in their work and life.