For decades, the Industrial Revolution has been associated with unprecedented innovation, with machines economizing hundreds of tasks. But all that innovation might have come at a desperate price: Researchers have found that, based on  personality testing of 381,916 people, individuals living where industry formally boomed in England and Wales struggle more psychologically than those residing in other areas.

Led by researchers from institutions including the Queensland University of Technology, University of Texas, University of Cambridge and the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University, the study was conducted between 2009 and 2011. It found that people living in areas once dominated by coal are more likely to suffer negative emotions, such as anxiety. They're also more likely to have trouble with planning and self motivation, as the University of Cambridge summarizes.

More specifically, people living in industrialized areas of the country scored

  • 33 percent higher than the rest of the country for neuroticism, with a tendency toward anxiety and depression standing 31 percent higher
  • 26 percent lower for overall conscientiousness (e.g., goal-oriented, planning), with the sub-facet of order 35 percent lower
  • 29 percent lower for life satisfaction

Why the dreariness now?

While the researchers say many factors could contribute to the general results of the study, they hypothesize that one major influence likely is migration. Individuals who went to industrial areas were often moving in hope of a better life. They had been exposed to a variety of trials, including poverty, that likely resulted in a range of psychological traumas. But the reality of industrial work then only served to make a bad situation worse. People were socialized to stressful conditions and behaviors. As people with greater psychological resilience mobilized themselves out of the industrial areas, the country was left with pockets of people who couldn't bounce back as well. Those individuals passed down their negative psychological traits both through experience and genetics.

What it means for you as a leader

The findings of the study have two big implications for modern business leaders. First, the past cannot be viewed strictly as the past. What happened centuries ago can be linked directly to the psychological reality of your workers today. As a result, really understanding and supporting the needs of your team might mean diving beyond their personal, single-generation history and looking at the broader context of what the community has faced over many generations. As the study's co-author, Michael Stuetzer, points out, regional personality levels likely "will continue to shape the well-being, health and economic trajectories of these regions."

Secondly, just as the Industrial Revolution influenced the psychological wellbeing of people living today, so too, can our work patterns affect the wellbeing of people who will come centuries after us. It's not unreasonable, for example, to compare the stresses of a 19th century factory worker in Wales with a Silicon Valley immigrant executive conditioned to work double shifts and meet seemingly impossible deadlines set by frantic change. For this reason, we need to be exceedingly cautious and aware of the systems and expectations we develop, making a conscious effort to create sustainable, inheritable positivity. Those systems and expectations should support not only psychological equality, but also health, economic and general social equality, as well.

People living in the Industrial Revolution had a disadvantage in that it's much easier for us, thanks to technology and globalization, to measure the influence of specific situations or tests. We can gather information on any number of issues in a mere blink and thus make much more informed decisions. We're getting a much better picture of how long-reaching choices can be. That said, the more we learn, the fewer excuses we have about protecting each other and working cooperatively for success.