Most of us spend at least a third of our daily lives at work. For some people, work takes even larger chunks of our time, as the pressure of longer hours, fears of cutbacks and redundancies, and demands for greater productivity, pile mounting expectation on their heads.
The results? Overwhelm, exhaustion, burnout , addictions, physical health problems, and mental illness. Stress at work is taking a major toll on mental and emotional wellbeing. And yet, we live in an era where talking about mental illness still makes a lot of us feel uncomfortable.
This April, a man who had “ everything to live for”, jumped in front of a train and killed himself. He had just left a high powered job in a large multi-national, to be able to spend more time with his family. The leading cause of death among men between the ages of 20 and 35 is suicide. Stress, anxiety and depression are predicted to be the second biggest causes of ill health in Western countries by 2020. That’s four years away.
We are in the middle of a silent, invisible and devastating epidemic of mental illness. Silent because of stigma. Invisible because of fear of discrimination. Devastating because of the enormous costs at personal, family, health care and corporate levels. None of us wants to face our fear and dis-ease in dealing with matters that strike so close to the heart. And yet, all of us are touched by mental illness somehow. What exactly are we afraid of?
Why has stress become such a major issue now?
Basically, our brains and bodies are pretty much the same as they were 150,000 years ago. Evolution moves at a glacial pace. But, and it’s a big but, the pace and pressure of life has increased exponentially in the last fifteen years, beyond anything we have ever seen. The digital era has issued in an age of being constantly “ON”. We are not equipped to deal with this. Our systems cannot cope.
As the impact of stress has recently taken its toll on some top executives in large corporations, small shifts in attitude are taking place as companies count the cost of absenteeism, presenteeism, and stress, on their bottom line.
But more needs to be done.
We need to
- make it as okay to suffer from an illness such as depression as it is to suffer from the disability of a broken leg i.e. remove the stigma.
- provide effective and appropriate care for everyone regardless of finance, class, education, and geographical location i.e. remove the discrimination.
- prevent the devastating cost to human well-being by creating more humane, open and compassionate ways of being at societal, corporate and inter-personal levels.
Many companies are waking up to the proven return on investment that implementing in-house mental wellbeing strategies brings. It is imperative that we do not see mental health as an individual’s problem. Human beings exist in a complex matrix of emotional, social and cultural interactions. Interventions that target stress management and build resilience can easily become ways to make staff “superfit”, ready to do battle with increasing workloads and pressure, padded up like American football players going on to the field, improved cannon fodder for a finance-driven corporate machine.
This will only work in the short term. What’s the point of training staff to be “superfit” in order to survive in a toxic environment?
We need profound shifts in organisational culture, and a new kind of leadership that values, respects and nurtures human relationships with openness, transparency and trust.
Fear-driven businesses will never be healthy places to work. Mental health requires that we see people, ourselves and others, as whole, worthy and connected. Not only do we need to realise that mental and emotional problems do not occur in a vacuum, and are no different from any other form of illness, but we also need to create workplaces that embed a true commitment to wellness from the top down. Lip service will no longer cut it.
We are all human, and we are in it together. Let’s create humane workplaces where we no longer have to maintain a mask, defend ourselves against power play, innuendo and covert hostility. Places where we feel we belong , are valued, and, dare I say it, cared for, as essential ingredients for a thriving business. It’s about human energy. Whilst there is no health without mental health, there is no business success without employee wellbeing.