Falkenström, F., Grant, J., & Holmqvist, R. (2016): Review of organizational effects on the outcome of mental health treatments. Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2016.1158883
Many psychotherapists treat patients within organizational contexts. These contexts might include university clinics, hospitals, primary care centers, community health centers, or even shared or group private practices. Psychotherapy researchers are often concerned with patient outcomes and predictors of outcomes like patient, therapist, or relationship variables. However, rarely do psychotherapy researchers consider the effects of the larger organizational context within which the psychotherapy is provided. On the other hand, many organizational psychology researchers are interested in organizational culture and management practices but seldom link these directly to patient outcomes. Is there an effect of the organizational context (i.e., culture and climate) on patient outcomes, and can we understand its effects in order to improve outcomes? Falkenstrom and colleagues review this literature. Organizational culture refers to shared norms, beliefs, and expectations in an organization or unit. These can be affected by hierarchical structure (i.e., perceived power differences between professions), managerial principles and styles (e.g., rigid vs lax styles, supportive and active vs undermining, micro-managing, or disengaged), and by technology. Various organizations appear to engender different cultures such that the staff can be more or less committed to the organization strategies and to the work itself. This is the basis of the well known expression: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Organizational climate refers to the overall sense of psychological security in a work environment. This may have an impact on workers’ attitudes and performance, and may also affect their willingness to report errors and to problem solve. In their review, Falkenstrom and colleagues found only 19 studies that directly assessed the effects of organizational context on patient mental health outcomes. Differences between organizations appeared to account for between 6% and 60% of patient outcomes. This is a very wide range that may be the result of many differences between studies (i.e., different patient populations, different definitions of outcomes, different definitions and measurements of organizational variables, etc.). However, even at 6%, this represents what most researchers would call a medium and meaningful effect. For example, Falkenstrom and colleagues reviewed specific studies and found that organizational climate (i.e., low conflict, low emotional exhaustion, and high cooperation and job satisfaction) were related to better psychosocial functioning in children placed in state custody. Several other studies showed that high staff turnover, low levels of support from leadership, and low mutual respect among professionals was associated with poorer mental health outcomes for a variety of patient populations. One study found that an intervention to improve organizational culture and climate resulted in improving mental health outcomes among children and adolescents.
There are surprisingly few studies that look at the relationship between organizational culture and patient outcomes. Although limited, most of the studies point to the effects of organizational culture and climate on staff and on patient outcomes. With increased emphasis on quality control in mental health care, it makes sense for managers, practitioners, researchers and patient groups to carefully consider an organization’s managerial practices, leadership, culture, and climate when looking to improve patient outcomes.