DISCUSSION A conversation in the library – mental health, eccentricity and conformity in the workplace

by Michael Wise _______21st September 2018
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In my local library late last week, I was accosted by a man. He’d been sat nearby, hawking back phlegm, chuntering to himself occasionally – a sound complemented by the excruciating heavy metal guitar solos that leaked through his headphones.

Actually, I wasn’t accosted by him; more the case that he sidled up to me. ‘Uh oh,’ I thought for a moment. “I want to show you something on YouTube,” he said with a big smile on his face. “It’s amazing. Don’t worry. Don’t worry.”

In the circumstances, I was happy enough to be shown: it’s a library after all. One thing about libraries (apart from the obvious) is that they are places where people go to pass the time. Sure, some visitors may look busy – studying hard, perhaps, researching, or working even – but plenty of others are floating free: the elderly reading the newspapers; the unemployed surfing the web; mums and toddlers at a playgroup. My new friend fell into the second category: I knew this because I’d looked up a little earlier, probably after one chunter too many, and had seen him browsing Indeed.

We sat down at the computer he had been using and he asked me to insert a headphone into my ear. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s clean.” Then he showed me: a video of a man I wasn’t previously aware of: Matt Dillahunty, a leading American atheist. He was hosting a phone-in show and arguing the toss (if that’s not too flippant a thing to say, given the subject matter) with a caller.

Dillahunty used a jar of gumballs as an analogy for his reasoning, pointing out to the caller that he would never look at the jar and say he knew – he definitely knew – that there was either an odd or even number of gumballs in there. Rather than blind belief, then, the only rational answer can be ‘I don’t know’.

This was what gripped my new friend, as he then explained. He did so speaking 10 to the dozen, his eyes gleaming with enthusiasm. I just about got the gist of what he was saying, and did what people tend to do in that situation: nodding and agreeing, rather than asking him to slow down and express himself more clearly.

Just the fact he was interested in such a thing marked him out, in my opinion, as being rather more-than-averagely intelligent. But would it necessarily make him a potential asset to an employer?Immediately, one’s mind jumps to a job interview and an outcome that, sadly, seems inevitable.

Of course, it isn’t always so. I remember watching a TV documentary a couple of years ago which pointed out this precise conundrum, and remember the ‘get in’ moment when a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome called Ben was finally offered a job with a law firm. But how often does it happen?

According to a study by mental health charity Mind in 2015, ‘over a third of people with mild to moderate mental health problems, and almost two thirds of people with more severe mental health problems, are unemployed. Added to this, almost half of people receiving Employment and Support Allowance are claiming primarily because of mental health problems.

‘Yet research shows the vast majority desperately want to work. Of over 150,000 people with mental health problems on ESA who have been placed on the Work Programme (now Work and Health Programme), only 6.7 per cent have been helped into work. This is compared to the programme’s success rate for those without a health condition of 25 per cent.’

Mind called ‘for a redesign of the benefits and back-to-work support system to support positive and open engagement with people with mental health problems rather than focusing on unfair assumptions about lack of motivation or willingness to work’. In particular, they cited the Individual Placement and Support (IPS) approach which, in their opinion, is much more tailored to a particular person’s needs.

Of course, in this instance, I could have grasped the wrong end of the stick. I mean how can one, relying on instinct rather than years of training, immediately tell the difference between someone with an illness or condition and a mere eccentric?

So far as my new friend is concerned, I naturally hope it’s no more than the latter. Yet, in general, there is a suspicion of the eccentric – if not necessarily in your local public library then certainly, I would say, in the business world.

I read an article on The Spectator website earlier this week pointing out as much. It’s subject was Elon Musk, whose own eccentric behaviour has been spooking Tesla shareholders of late. Of course the difference here is that the power dynamic is tipped on its head, in that it’s the boss’s caprices they’re trying to accommodate, rather than casting a quizzical eye on some hopeful trying to get his or her foot on the bottom rung on the ladder. Yet the problem is essentially the same: how to harness wayward intelligence and creativity in an environment that values conformity?

The feeling is that the eccentric – if he doesn’t go it alone the way Musk has with such eye-catching success – would stand a much better chance at a smaller business than a larger one, particularly if the latter has a recruitment process that doesn’t allow much more than a quick eye to be cast over the applicant.

Yet wouldn’t they be missing out on something – somebody – useful, if not vital? As the writer of the article, Will Lloyd, said: “The tendency to dismiss eccentric tinkerers as soon as they express anything outside the norm is a grotesque shame. At last count eccentric tinkerers were responsible for airplanes, cars, personal computers, telephones, antibiotics, electricity and every good book you’ve ever pretended to read.”

Speaking of which, the library was closing so we headed outside. My new friend was still keen to discuss atheism, though I managed to change the subject to the Skripal poisoning case. We chatted for about 10 minutes more before he motioned to leave. “I don’t want to bend your ear,” he said, before running off down the street. No, truly it was a pleasure. I hope he finds a job soon.

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