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Is Your Organization Mentally Healthy?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dennis Martino
January 8, 2018

Public organizations are not immune from dysfunctions experienced in any sector. When should we seek help as administrators? What are the indicators of similarities between individual or group therapy and Organizational Development interventions?

Individuals seek help with personal mental health issues for a variety of reasons. However, except court orders or involuntary commitments, most people seek help to gain coping skills for issues such as the loss of a spouse through divorce or death. They seek help when they are depressed or suffer from anxiety. It is important to note that individuals usually voluntarily seek help for mood disorders rather than personality disorders.

The latter issue is a little less clear. Organizations are a collective of personalities, and the problems organizations face can come from inadequate or inept leadership. In some cases, the issue of leadership is clearly the problem. Alternatively, the problems of an organization or a workgroup within an organization might have causes such as poorly designed work, downsizing due to finances or efficiencies or the clash of strong personalities.

Also, the mental health of key employees and managers plays a role in the stability of the organization. For example, workplaces that have employees or managers with mood disorders or personality disorders are fraught with problems. Teams become dysfunctional when faced with trying to mitigate the impact of troubled employees and managers.

Fortunately, the American Psychological Association, (APA) is studying the issue of workplace well-being in detail. One focus of the APA Center for Organizational Excellence is the issue of alleviating workplace problems, says the 2015 Resources for Employers.

The psychological aspect of organizations has gained attention. In one very recent study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, titled “Which Comes First, Organizational Culture or Performance?,” by Anthony Boyce, an independent researcher in Psychometrics, discovered that for organizations to be highly productive the climate of the organization requires attention. This study showed a causal relationship between climate and performance. The more humane the organizational climate is, the higher the performance is for the group and individuals within the group.

Examples of similarities in our language

One example of how the nomenclature used in mental health and those employed in OD work have started to meld is evident in the literature. In a 2014 article titledThe High-Cost of Federal Workforce Depression,” published in the online magazine, Government Executive, workplace consultant Howard Risher describes the United States Secret Service as suffering from low morale.  He states, “Low employee morale adversely affects employee performance. When morale deteriorates, and it is not addressed, at some point, it transitions to what is best understood as workplace depression.”

Using Risher’s statement, we can conclude that in some circumstances the parlance of the two types of practitioners are the same.  Depression can afflict both individuals and organizations. OD practitioners deal with the issues of low morale with great frequency.  Most team building is more like therapy than it is the mechanics of team functions.

In the area of loss, the downsizing of organizations has caused numerous people to suffer the effects of loss and survivor’s guilt according to Mickey Bumbaugh, in her 1998 article in Nursing Management, titled “Moving Beyond Survival After Downsizing,” she states that for those who remain after downsizing many are debilitated by feelings of guilt. She believes these employees must go through all the stages of grief.

Individuals frequently seek help for trauma or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Likewise, in organizations, setbacks can cause the same traumatic feelings. Writing an article about organizational healing for the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Edward Powley, an Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, described examples of the recognition that trauma can occur to organizations as well as individuals.

A troubling link between mental health interventions and treatment and those related to organizations is around personality disorders. Once again if top management suffers from these disorders, the whole body can suffer the consequences. Disorders such as Narcissistic and Anti-Social Personality Disorders are not alien to the workplace. The presence in significant numbers of such personalities has an aggregate effect on a work environment according to UTEP Assistant Professor, Daniel Jones in his 2012 article published in the European Journal of Personality, titled “The Core of Darkness: Uncovering the Heart of the Dark Triad.”

How are the interventions similar?

As with therapy, change measures organizational work. In a therapeutic setting, the relationship between the therapist and the client is widely considered to be a key determinant of success. The same is true for organizational interventions. The link between the organizational development professional and the client entity is a critical determinant of the success of the intervention. In this regard, the establishment of trust is of high importance. Successful establishment of trust in the area or organizational interventions is in no way different from establishing a strong therapeutic alliance between a therapist and an individual.

For any organization to function most optimally, its good health is paramount. Without suggesting that all organizations are troubled, it is important to note that organizations, like people, can experience events that can shake their stability. An assessment or a” checkup” can save an organization from becoming low-functioning.


Author: Dennis is the former Director of the NH Bureau of Education and Training,
He is an adjunct faculty member at Granite State College and Springfield College.
Prior to his current academic work, he had twenty-one years’ experience in Labor Relations as a union advocate and contract negotiator. Dennis has acted as a workplace mediator with both small and large agencies. He is a board member of both the National Certified Public Manager Consortium and the American Academy of Certified Public Managers. Education: BA Sociology, St. Anselm College, Manchester, NH; M.Ed., Rivier University; MS Psychology, California Southern University

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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