An old episode of QI pops up on Dave now and then. It’s an episode I’ve seen half a dozen times but one fact never fails to surprise me: you’re three times more likely to die at work than at war — unless your job is a solider during wartime, in which case I suspect it’s roughly even…
That’s not because we’re living in some borderline utopia/dystopia in which all international disputes are solved by sending Terminators to the trenches. The reason is much less exciting.
It’s because workplaces suck.
Aside from the whole host of complicated physical ways in which your workplace is a less exciting jigsaw killer, there are mountains of research indicating that the modern workplace is destroying our mental health.
Leading employee engagement and events company Wildgoose found that in a survey of employees from 250 companies across the UK, 77 per cent had been affected by a mental health issue over the course of their career. The shocking part is how people react.
Wildgoose found that 49 per cent of people felt they couldn’t talk to a manager about a mental health issue. And of those who did, 57 per cent found that their manager either could not or did not provide any significant help. That’s not too bad, right? A bit of training will sort that out in a jiffy — but it gets worse.
The reason employees largely dismiss the idea of getting genuine help from their managers is simple. They see through the smiles and HR slogans to the underlying mentality: profit over people
Suffering in Silence
The first serious job I ever had was with a small local business. My colleagues were kind, considerate, and a couple even regularly went out of their way to check up on me with more than just a superficial ‘How are you?’/ ‘Fine?’ /’Ok, bye’ repertoire. I felt comfortable with the idea that I was surrounded by support should it be needed, and did my best to express that the sentiment was mutual. So, when a death in the family and a number of other major factors caused a steep decline in my mental health I was pleasantly unsurprised when I was offered time off to recover. So, a week or so went by and I felt ready to return to work.
When I got in I was greeted with smiles and compassion before promptly making my way to my desk to go about the business of the day. After which, I was promptly fired.
Frankly, I don’t know if my mental health issues were the cause of the firing. The cited cause was a lack of acceptable job performance since day one. Something that, if true, should have probably been addressed at least once in the several months I’d been there, and certainly not on the day I returned after a significant depressive episode.
That was my first experience of mental health in the workplace. The nightmare scenario that stops people opening up was my reality.
Luckily, my next workplace was infinitely more understanding and their care was genuine. The result? We were both immeasurably better off. They didn’t have to sack someone and I didn’t have to suffer in silence.
Why does it happen?
My story isn’t uncommon. In fact, there seems to be in instinctive understanding of it by a significant number of people. I mentioned earlier that 49 per cent of sufferers felt they couldn’t talk to a manager about mental health issues. Well that’s no surprise when 63 per cent of managers surveyed felt that they were obligated to put the needs of the company over the needs of the employee. But there’s one problem …
They’re the same thing.
The cliché that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link holds true. Absenteeism due to mental health costs £1,035 per employee. I’m not making an argument to the company pocket book, I’ll explain the pointlessness of that shortly. But when the average income in the UK is £27,600 we’re talking about an almost 5 per cent extra cost to the employer. I don’t know a company on earth that wouldn’t love a sudden 5 per cent increase in productivity. I’m sure many would kill for it … but they wouldn’t become caring for it.
Forget the money
I know, I know, it’s easy to get distracted by the money. I know I did. And I suppose this is the part where I appeal to the bottom line of the toxic business models that cause these messes. I should really push that £1,035 statistic and mention all the money lost due to presenteeism which is so easily fixed. I should put forth a passionate plea to any bigwigs that may one day read this that a change to their environment and protocols would cause enormous growth. But I’d be wasting your time and mine.
These facts aren’t new. They’re increasingly mainstream and that’s wonderful but I doubt there’s a single big boss at HSBC or McDonald’s that hasn’t heard all this before. It’s not sexy.
It’s not sexy to provide managers with appropriate mental health training. It’s not a big win to make sure all of your employees are in an environment that won’t exacerbate mental health issues. You can’t win over a board of directors by telling them to invest in employee happiness. It’s all about the short-term money-saving, profit-driving, soul-crushing Bottom Line.
What can we do this year so we can spend less and make more?
You can tell them to cheap out on ventilation. Hell, that’s a win-win. You can save money and call yourself environmentally friendly while your employees are poisoned by toxic toner fumes and the veritable petri dish that’s been John McClane-ing its way through the building since last Christmas. That’s fine …
Well what can be done?
Not a lot. Frankly. Only a bottom-up, re-education will suffice. A reworking of the education system to include the fundamentals of real life. Things like political literacy, personal finance and, of course, mental health. There are other ways to change our views on mental health, but that’s the big one.
But it’s not going to happen. Austerity has seen to that. Slashing of public services, decimation of funding for mental health charities like Mind, and a general distaste for anything in the public good. So, until we elect a government that truly represents people over profit we’ll continue to sink deeper and deeper into the toxic cancer-boxes our workplaces have become. Just as long as it keeps making money.