It’s been a WHILE since I last posted.
Today I want to talk about mental health in the workplace. It’s something that’s being spoken about more and more; the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was stress (more info here), which lots of people inevitably associated with workplace stress. The number of organisations signing up to Time to Change’s Employer Pledge, a commitment which employers make to end mental health stigma and discrimination in their organisations, is steadily increasing (more info here). Alongside this, the fabulous Natasha Devon just launched her campaign to make it compulsory for workplaces to have Mental Health First Aiders, just as it’s compulsory to have medical First Aiders (more info here).
I don’t mean to be a skeptic, I really don’t, but I have to be honest. As wonderful as all these initiatives are, I am not confident that they will come close to solving the problem of workplace stress and the massive impact that work has on so many people’s mental health. I don’t think that’s because they aren’t great, but rather because the whole context in which they have to operate in (i.e. the Western world of work) is not adapting accordingly and meaningfully*.
What is the use of a business signing a pledge, having a Mental Health First Aider or donating to a mental health charity, when they pay their staff minimum wage, force them to do jobs that are well out of their job description and which they aren’t paid for, and get away with it all due to their fear that they won’t be able to pay next month’s rent if they speak up? What is the use when businesses intentionally recruit under 25s so that they don’t have to pay them minimum wage, knowingly full well that the work they will have to do is deserving of so much more? What is the use when within the same hour a manager can receive an email about their mental health awareness training AND an email about further cuts to their staff budget, when they’re already single-handedly doing the job of 3 people, they can’t take the holidays they’re legally entitled to due to staff shortages and they spend their lunch times watching CCTV because there is no-one there to cover for them when they go on their break?
How did we reach a point in society where these fantastic initiatives, which have been put in place in response to a national health crisis, are used as nothing more as a PR stunt and a recruitment tactic by the big businesses? Only once you’re working for an organisation do you really get to know how much they care about your mental health, and I think the majority of us are in for a shock when we find out. Not only does this make me incredibly angry, it breaks my heart, because it means so many workers are not seeing any positive changes on the frontline, meanwhile their employers get a pat on the back for their fantastic PR we-care-about-mental-health act, making it even harder to receive validation and support from people on the outside.
Big businesses have been told time and time again that neglecting the mental health of their employees does not make them more successful, but rather leads to higher levels of absenteeism, higher levels of staff turnover, and lower levels of productivity. Yet it continues to be an uphill battle to get them to truly value this evidence and reflect it in their policies and procedures. I understand it would indeed be costly to give employees everything they ask for, but if big businesses can find the money to pay their CEO’s millions upon millions of pounds each year, I’m pretty sure they can find a way of breaking even without disregarding the human and employee rights of the staff who make their business such a success in the first place. Until our society as a whole learns to value people more than money I think we’ll have a problem – that’s the bottom line.
I know it’s not always possible, and it’s never easy, but I’d encourage everyone who works for an organisation to try to ask these big questions to the people at the top. Keep asking until you see change. Join a union. Campaign. Fight for your rights and the rights of your colleagues. Do not let anyone make you feel powerless. Speak up. I know I am…
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King Jr
*(I say whole context because I understand that some organisations who have used these initiatives have seen marked improvements in their workforce’s mental health and I applaud them for that. I am sure that those organisations are the ones that have not just used it as a PR act, but rather they have truly embedded the importance of a mentally healthy work environment within their policies and procedures. My point in this post is that many businesses are not doing this; they are implementing these initiatives without changing the way they work and this defeats the purpose altogether, and doesn’t give the initiatives the opportunity to do any more than act as a sticking plaster over a broken bone.)