Mental health, the workplace and capitalism

For the last few months, I’ve been contending with (it isn’t really a fight, because until very recently, I come out the winner every time) a neat package of anxiety, depression and stress as a direct cause of work. It seems that I’m not the only one. According to NHS Digital, around one fifth (19%) of women have reported being affected by a mental health condition.

This is just from women who have come into contact with the NHS about being affected by a mental health conditon. The real figure is likely to be much higher.

Last week sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, I became one of those statistics. When we look at the discourse surrounding the increase of people who are affected by a mental health condition, we are told it’s exclusive cause is the rise of social media and conforming to a societal ideal. But the exclusive cause isn’t just the rise of social media. The rise of social media is just another block in the game of Jenga that is the mental health crisis in Britain.

Mental health owes as much to structures as it does to the individual. It should come as a surprise to nobody — especially those who work in the public sector like I do — that stress is one of the biggest causes of absence from work. Since 2009, the number of sick days from work as a result of stress, anxiety or depression has risen from 12.3 million, to 15.2 million days in 2013. Around 8% of sickness absences from work in 2014 were as a direct cause of stress, anxiety and depression.

There has been an increase in the prevalence of mental health issues in children and adults since the 1970s. It doesn’t take much to realise that this is linked to the real time stagnation in wages since the 70s and a clear change from the post — war social democratic consensus to highly individualistic and hyper capitalistic neo — liberalism.

Through this, we are encouraged to work harder, for more money. Our public sector is currently being starved of the resources it needs. There is less staff to do more work. Public sector managers are coming under more pressure from their managers to meet targets and manage more people, hence the culture of micro management that is emerging, particularly in the public sector.

This on-demand work culture creates an apathetic and drained workforce. When I started my current job in April this year, I was excited for what I could do. I was the first person to ever have the job which meant I was able to do great things with it. Over the last few months, I have grown to dislike my job to an extent where I am actively job seeking and thinking about different directions to go in. I am micro-managed, decisions about me are made without me even being in the room, I am tasked with organising large projects single handedly and every day is managed like a crisis.

My doctor has been helpful and has signed me off work for two weeks, but this hasn’t helped as much as she’d hoped it would. The thought of going back is still at the back of my mind and thoughts still plague my mind last thing at night when I have to get up to take a beta — blocker or I would struggle to get to sleep.

So what’s the solution to all of this?

Employers have to take their employee’s mental health as seriously as they would their physical health. Managers have to consider their style of management and the effect or impact it has on their workers’ mental health and employees should feel able to approach their managers when they are struggling. However, managers also have to recognise that their workers’ reluctance to speak about their mental health may be as a direct cause of their mental health condition.

If targets are absolutely necessary — managers should set them in conjunction with you and what you can manage — not dictate to you what they should be. The timeframe for achieving them should also be made clear. Employers should provide their workers with more ways to manage their work effectively.

Employers should work with their workers and trade unions to develop a mental health policy and strategy that puts workers at the heart of it and commits the employer to take the mental health of their workers seriously and put support in place when a worker has to take time off work. This could include things like, not having to phone in if they are affected by anxiety (they could email or text in instead), phasing in their return to work and putting in place realistic aims for the planned return to work.

Workplace mental health is going to continue to be one of the biggest causes of sickness absence in these times of increasing mental health conditions. Structurally, cases of mental health conditions can be directly correlated to the increase in precarious work, public sector cuts and an increasingly individualistic and capitalistic ideology. Unless something changes here, our collective mental health will continue to worsen.

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