New data shows poor mental health impedes creativity

August 24, 2021 - 6 min read

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What the data say

What it means

When we struggle, we can’t perform our best. Our work performance suffers. We become less open to other ideas and possibilities, and we can’t generate consistently high-caliber and novel ideas.

Stress and anxiety stall creativity and innovation. 

We’ve all felt it: our creative spark dulled or distinguished by the mundane realities of life. Routine tasks like commuting, running errands, raising children, and advancing careers fill our calendars.

When we were kids, creativity was abundant — building blanket forts, creating shapes out of Play-Doh or LEGO, acting out plays for family and friends. We lived in our imaginations, and early education supported these pursuits.

Nowadays, as we age and shoulder more responsibilities, it can feel like we have fewer creative opportunities in our lives. Moreover, stress, anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout consume the remaining “space” in our brain, leaving little to no room for creativity.

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At the heart of it, creativity is confidence — confidence in our imagination, ideas, and the risk of creating something new, something that colors outside the lines and questions the system. 

This is also called “jootsing,” a phrase coined by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. According to Dennett, “Creativity … often is a heretofore unimagined violation of the rules of the system from which it springs.” In this definition, creativity merges with imagination — the ability to envision a system that doesn't yet exist, the system with new rules or different constraints.

Jootsing encourages you to know “the system” before creatively breaking the rules. For example, you must learn the basic chords on a guitar before creating a new melody. Attempting to do so before mastering the basics would likely sound like a hodge-podge of sound. 

The same applies to testing a new approach to a process at work before understanding how your team has done it for years.

Creative limitations such as this provide a firm starting point and guide us towards the space where we can play and shape something new.

Too many limitations, such as stress at home, anxiety at work, and overwhelm from a global pandemic, can choke creativity altogether. 

When you’re mentally weighed down, it doesn’t matter how well you know the system—your creative side can’t function with confidence.

How does this apply to work? Whether or not you work a traditionally creative job, creativity is likely needed in your day-to-day. Framing new opportunities, team brainstorms, testing new workflows, solving challenging problems, and even feeling comfortable with ambiguity each requires a creative approach.

What the data say 

A recent Qualtrics study found that 42% of people reported a decline in mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic. After a historically difficult year, we were curious to see how mental health impacts creativity at work.

We polled 1,350 US workers, 75% of whom had a Bachelor’s or higher, about how much they struggled with their mental health. We then inquired about how difficult they found creative work in the prior two weeks.

On a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being “a lot of effort,” those who were currently struggling with mental health “very much” reported their perceived creative effort at nearly a 3.

We’ve found that positive mental health is associated with a faster, slicker runway toward creativity and innovation—and health in general. Those struggling “not at all” with mental health spent 23% less effort executing creative work. Their perceived creative exertion hovered just over a 2.

What it means

Employees struggling with their mental health — whether or not that struggle is work-related — can’t perform as well or with the same confidence level as those who are healthy.

Mental health isn’t merely a benefits problem or a personal issue to be dealt with at home. Your team’s mental health directly impacts their work — especially creative, innovative work. Companies should understand that supporting mental health at work is also in service of business performance. Creating a true “bridge” between work and each employee’s personal life ultimately harvests significant upside that enhances both.

The healthier your team is, the better your business can grow. Mental health support at work looks like this:

  • Model healthy behaviors. Encourage management to be transparent about taking mental health days or stepping out for therapy. New and mid-level employees will then feel more comfortable discussing this at work.
  • Schedule non-work-related check-ins. Make mental health a normal discussion topic at work.
  • Offer flexible schedules. Help your team feel comfortable asking for time off for childcare changes, therapy sessions, or mental health days of their own.
  • Invest in mental fitness training. Proactively offer resources that equip your team to manage their stress and anxiety. This kind of coaching can also lead to increased productivity, engagement, and employee resilience.

Studies also show that creativity can “increase positive emotions, lessen depressive symptoms, reduce stress, decrease anxiety, and even improve immune system functioning.” 

Just as mental health support helps your team be more creative, so too do creative tasks and goals bolster mental health—building a cycle of positivity and mental fitness at work.

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Published August 24, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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