Discussion Mental health and the workplace – shifting the culture

by Michael Wise _______4th December 2018
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“I constantly remind our employees to be afraid, to wake up every morning terrified,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, in a 1999 letter to shareholders.

Surely, one of the most disappointing consequences of the internet boom is the realisation that the behemoths it has spawned are not the nice progressive, cool people they pretend to be. To be fair to Mr Bezos, I’m not sure he has ever really gone to great lengths in applying a veneer of virtue, and probably has so much money now that he has long since past caring. But it does seem that ‘big tech’ is at the vanguard of an attitude to work that is not simply atavistic, but also life-denying.

Speaking to The Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson as part of our Voices of Progress inquiry recently, he reminded me of a billboard advert that caused a bit of a kerfuffle a couple of years ago. It was for Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelance workers, and featured a rather gaunt-looking woman together with the words:

“You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

A depressing message, no? I don’t even understand what the second sentence means, although one immediately summoned up recent reports from San Francisco, blighted by homelessness and drug addiction to the extent that city cleaners have a job on their hands to remove record levels of human faeces from the pavements. This is happening just minutes away from the HQs of both Twitter and Uber, where, doubtless, coffee-swilling, sleep-deprived employees are fist-bumping each other furiously. They’re doers.

Well…maybe. I have long held doubts about what I call ‘the machismo of work’ and it was reassuring (if not surprising) to hear Tom agree. “Generally, people think it’s high status to overwork,” he told me. “You say, ‘How are you doing?’ and it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, I’m so busy, really busy.’ You shouldn’t say that; you should say, ‘I’m not really busy’.

“Being really busy is a sign of being stupid because you’re not organising your time properly. I don’t know if it’s true, but you hear that, in places like Holland, if you’re still in the office at half-past six on a Friday then it means that you’re not very good at your job.”

As ever, the problem is one of an ingrained culture, one that is predicated on fear; links between such a culture and mental health problems appear self-evident. One can understand soldiers engaged in battle waking up terrified every morning, given what they have to endure, hence the PTSD diagnoses. Clearly, this comparison is exaggerated to make a point, much as is the eye cast upon Silicon Valley: its denizens are, with their desire to halve time spent asleep in order to double productivity, pushing things somewhat. Yet it does seem in general that this predilection for relentless dynamism represents the spirit of the age. And for all except a hardcore, it’s probably not good for the soul.

It might be there in the contract you sign that stipulates that you will sometimes be required to work out of hours for no recompense (and you wonder to what extent your new employer will take advantage); it might be there in the form of your creepy line manager, who sucks up, hits down and who seems to be the living embodiment of psychological projection (and who might just be out of his or her depth); it might be there in the wage freeze for another year; it might be there in how your employer makes people redundant and then take them back on less favourable contracts; it’s definitely there in the trend towards living wage and insecure ‘gig’ work…

…and it might be there in the knowledge that one, or more, of the above is apparent in your day-to-day worklife but you best not mention it to anyone because you don’t want to lose your job as you know you’ve only a few hundred quid to your name.

Tomorrow’s Company believes that business should be a force for good in society, which is why we also think that none of the above is particularly healthy or helpful – not for the long-term prospects of the employee and neither for those of the employer. The good news is that, so far as mental health awareness is concerned, progress is being made. Businesses are no longer asking ‘Why should we be addressing this?’ Now they’re asking, ‘What shall we do?’

Creating workplaces where people feel better able to share their experiences is a good place to start building a new culture, one built on a bedrock of human decency – but one which, we believe, can also offer both a reputational and productivity gain. A corporate droid who exists on four hours sleep a night may take issue with the latter assertion, but we think we’re on steady ground. And so far as the former is concerned, in a world in which younger people are increasingly open and expect their organisations to be so, we think that a good reputation will help attract – and keep – loyal staff.

More training and support is now available in the field of mental health and yet it is clear that still more needs to be done. Besides stymying the worst excesses of workplace culture, we need to ask, for example, whether the HR function can play a better role, and also how to spend more wisely for the best impact.

Therefore, we think there is a need for:

  • A business case, a financial case and an emotional and/or moral, ‘heart first’ case;
  • Evidence-based, concrete research into what works;
  • Better language and terminology, to facilitate conversations;
  • A greater focus on creating cultures in which people flourish, and which prevents mental health issues arising or developing;
  • Making stronger links between better productivity and better mental health.

But such recommendations merely scratch the surface. At our first ‘Technology, Productivity and Mental Health’ roundtable held last month, the feeling was that more focus, exploration and innovation is needed. For example:

  • What strategies actually work? How do we know?
  • How does mental health relate to productivity and how do we prevent burnout?
  • How does mental health intersect with other factors such as gender, race, poverty and ability?
  • How do we manage the reality of people bringing their whole selves to work, when they may have baggage or issues arising in their lives?
  • How do we address the different cases of wellbeing in the workplace vs. workplaces being welcoming and open to people with mental illnesses as they occur (when they are not workplace driven), e.g. neurodiversity, PTSD, dementia.
  • What is the impact of technology?
  • How do we create strategies for building mental resilience when organisations are experiencing change?
  • What responsibilities actually lie within individuals and how do we enable people to better manage their own mental wellbeing?

Through collaboration between organisations and individuals, we believe that it is possible to shift the culture. There is a business case for it, which is why it is necessary to find evidence of what works and to forge new ideas that will have a real impact on employee wellbeing, thus increasing long-term productivity.

Following the roundtable, therefore, Tomorrow’s Company are launching a programme of work on Mental Health and Productivity. We have a four-step approach – ‘Issue framing, Interaction, Innovation and Impact’ – and over the next year will seek to develop recommendations that will make a difference.

It’s the last bit that really matters. If, as seems the case, an awareness of mental health is growing in society, then that is clearly a good thing. But what good is being aware of something that is detrimental without the means to change?

The obvious, depressing, question to ask when confronted with stories of workplace misery is why anyone would choose to exist like that. Yet an even more depressing thought is that people might choose to exist like that simply because they’re unaware that they have options; that’s all they know. That’s the culture. But that’s not true; it’s not the only culture. And we shouldn’t be terrified.

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