As business and political leaders gather in Davos, Switzerland, this week, those weary of the palaver on trade alliances, mergers and charity initiatives can stop by Thursday morning to hear actress Goldie Hawn expound on the benefits of meditation.
The “mindfulness” panel with Hawn is among 25 sessions at the 2014 World Economic Forum discussing wellness, mental health and the potentially pernicious effects of technology on the brain. That’s at least 50 percent more wellness-related presentations than in 2008.
The theme shows how anxiety over stress and its impact on business is mounting among the Davos set, who’ve spent the last five years dealing with crises from the collapse of Lehman Bros. to the Syrian civil war — all connected 24/7 to their beeping, buzzing smartphones. Mental health-related illnesses may cost $16 trillion in lost output over the next 20 years, according to figures from Harvard University and the forum.
“People are becoming aware of the huge economic impact” of illness, said Norbert Hueltenschmidt, a partner at consultancy Bain. “Healthy living is at the top of this year’s agenda, and you see it throughout the program; there’s never been a year like this one.”
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The goal of the sessions, Davos organizers say, is to draw attention to problems of mental health, disease and stress that increasingly afflict people worldwide.
Among delegates, “there’s maybe a greater recognition the levels of stress of the last five years are not going to go away,” said Robert Greenhill, the forum’s top business officer. “We may not be in the crisis we were, but there’s no sense of a return to complacency.”
On the sidelines of the main forum, an inaugural Health Summit will bring together executives, academics and government officials to talk about large-scale challenges. Their interest isn’t entirely altruistic.
For businesses, “there is accumulating evidence about how one’s psychological well-being affects one’s productivity,” said economist Laura Tyson, former head of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers.
While stress has long been an issue for executives, underpinning interest in the subject in Davos is an emerging body of research indicating that constant attention to electronic devices may be affecting the brain.
“We created our problem we are now trying to solve,” said Loic Le Meur, a Davos regular. “We’ve been completely addicted to Facebook and Twitter and always being bombarded by your phone or the Internet nonstop.”