The issue of mental health in the workplace received some much-needed though well hidden attention at the weekend with an article in the Guardian in which the recognition of mental health problems by employers is discussed. Two issues are highlighted in it: One is the fear that employees have of admitting to a problem for fear of losing their job, the other is the accommodation of problems by some employers to help the employee cope and remain at work. Thinking about this logically the latter makes sense and the former is arguably protected by law. If only it were that simple.
As I have written about before, my own experience of this has not been good. I work for a “world-class” institution and “failure” is a bar set very high by managers. It is an environment where support is limited in any formal way other than the groups you happen to work in. Whilst in one sense the hours are flexible, the pressure coming from the top to “succeed” means many people putting in over and above the level of work which is healthy. This is facilitated both by a fuzzy contract which does not clearly stipulate hours of work and by a failure of the employer to ensure that leave is taken. It all comes down to individual managers. As the Guardian piece illustrates, training is available for managers in many organisations. In my place of work managers emerge, lack training and it is a matter of luck if yours can deal with the pressure of an employee who is suffering. When I was absent from work there was no contact from my employer to see how I was. My return to work was rushed because my then manager did not fully understand the issues I was facing, the difficulty of returning to an environment I saw as toxic and because he was under the same pressures as everyone else. Equally there was a lack of structure to this return. In the 9 years I have been employed here I have only received 3 appraisals/development reviews. Without knowing how well I am doing and what is expected of me there is a void which has been filled by what I though should be done. So a major cause of my initial absence was in danger of returning (and has at times returned). I am now part-time at my insistence but keeping the boundaries in place can be a difficult task. Far from being accommodating or supportive, my employer has stood its ground and largely ignored what will not fit into normal practice. I have had to fight at each stage. That is not to say that I haven’t had supportive colleagues and managers or that the managers who let me down were doing so out of malice. Rather, it is the organisation that cannot cope.
Yet it is difficult to see a way around this where I work. As indicated above, managers emerge from the cream of the crop. They are expert in their field of knowledge and so receive promotion to increasingly administrative positions. But they are not expert in management and are competent at best in juggling these responsibilities. As they rise so their way of doing things becomes engrained and passed down through the organisation. The culture of poor people management can easily develop. On the flip side there are unions who arguably should be working to improve this. Again my experience has been poor. Stress, anxiety and depression are issues which are deeply affected by work and by the pressure of work. It is widely recognised that relaxation and rest is essential in dealing with this. Yet the union to which I belonged is complicit in underpinning existing working patterns. In the name of freedom they don’t push for a recognised set of working hours, or a set working week or the monitoring of hours and holiday by managers. Whilst this may be a freedom for some, for many of us this is the root cause of our problems. Although the union wants us to strike to protect our pay and pensions, it does very little to improve the conditions which would allow us to benefit greatly from both. Is it any wonder we end up between a rock and a hard place.
Ironically the same time as my friend Mel sent me the link to the Guardian article, a questionnaire about work-related stress landed on my desk. It is part of a study by a student. How timely. I think it’s time to complete it.