Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Tuesday, 10 October 2017


Work Can Become The Focus Of All Our Fears And Anxieties - But We Have The Power To Change That

The Debrief: Like having a bad back, your job will affect and exacerbate a mental health condition if you don’t take steps to prevent it from doing so.

As I began contemplating writing this feature for World Mental Health Day and thinking about this year’s theme – how to be well at work – my flight back to London from a short and much-needed break in France was delayed. It was already a late flight and I would have got home at 10.30pm, just in time for a bath and bed but it gradually got later and later. By the time I boarded the plane which would carry me back to London it was 2 am. 

Travel delays are always frustrating and never welcome, but this one really felt like a kick in the guts. I had been away with four friends; the trip was organised at a time when all of us felt a bit overwhelmed after particularly busy periods and needed a change of scene. We arrived at the airport relaxed and ready to face our real lives again, but as the hours passed pushing our bedtimes further and further back all of our moods changed. 

Everyone was stressed about getting up in time for work. We all sat there saying ‘I’ve got so much to do tomorrow, I can’t not go in’ on a loop, slowly and pointlessly stressing ourselves out more and more like a dog chasing its tail. For what, I began to wonder? None of us save lives for a living and, even if we did, surely that would be all the more reason to acknowledge that sometimes life just gets in the way and you have to move things around. Planes get delayed, trains break down, loved ones get sick, relationships end and boilers blow up, this is the emotional and practical administration that shapes every single human life. 

In the same way that you wouldn’t want a sleep-deprived surgeon operating on you, do you really want someone who is exhausted and out of it to turn up for work just for the sake of turning up? Have you ever done your best work when you felt like crap? When did our attitudes to work so deeply unhealthy?

‘I think we have cultural problem’ explains Jessica Chivers, coaching psychologist and founder of Talent Keepers (an organisation which advises companies on how to hold onto good employees). She thinks we’re addicted to being busy and, wrongly, attach status to how packed out our schedules are: ‘we get a kick out of telling people how busy we are and letting others know about it. The problem is that if people are rewarded for this they will keep doing it even if it’s not necessarily good for our productivity or our health.’

Maintaining your health at work and managing to have some semblance of a work-life balance is important no matter who you are but if you, as I do, suffer from any sort of mental health issues then it is, without a doubt, the most important thing you’ll consider day to day. 

Jessica says that as much as employers need to be better (and they really do) we also have to take matters into our own hands and lead the way. ‘People have to recognise what they need to do for themselves and practice self-care just as line managers have to set the right example. They are the most significant influencer when it comes to employee engagement at work. We have to take responsibility for ourselves but equally employers have to do the right thing, she says. ‘All the research shows that you will get the best from an employee if you encourage them to take care of themselves and show that you, as an employer, are invested in their wellbeing.’ Ultimately, she thinks this is ‘about social norms’ and if you work in an office where nobody takes a lunch break or takes time off if they’re unwell then it’s ‘difficult to go against the grain’ because we’re ‘animals…we take our cue from others.’ 

It’s telling that, according to a recent NHS report, one in three sick notes handed out by GPs in Britain are now for mental health issues. More than five million of us are also being signed off every year due to anxiety and depression. This means that mental health problems are now a bigger cause of time off work than musculoskeletal conditions, like bad backs. 

World Mental Health day is great, it gets people talking about these issues but it’s not enough to talk if nothing ever changes. Thankfully, attitudes, broadly, are starting to shift. The perils of presenteeism are starting to be recognised. Being physically present at your desk doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being productive and producing good work. As this article in the Harvard Business Review notes, the most up to date research suggests that presenteeism – being at work but physically or mentally not fully turning up – can cut productivity by a third or more.

Jessica thinks that a huge attitudinal shift is coming, albeit slowly. ‘It’s an exciting time where we are paying more attention to diversity and inclusion and mental health and general wellbeing are part of that’ she says, ‘take the fact that that the CEO of Lloyd’s Bank, Antonio Horta-Osaria has spoken to The Times about needing to take time off for his mental health and coming back more able to work’. Indeed, the top city boss who booked himself into The Priory because of anxiety and defied those who criticised him for doing so by returning to work and delivering on his promise to make his bank private again, repaying all of the taxpayers’ money which had been used to bail it out during the financial crisis. Horta-Osaria is now on a mission to ‘end the stigma of workplace stress’ as he puts it himself and if the tide is turning in banking, where the culture has historically been totally toxic, then we are certainly at a significant point when it comes to our attitudes to mental health and work. 

Like having a bad back, your job will affect and exacerbate a mental health condition if you don’t take steps to prevent it from doing so. Something I’ve learned, often the hard way, in the first decade of my working life is that you have the power to change things even when you feel like you don’t. If your flight is delayed, be honest and say you need more sleep. If someone you care about is unwell, take the time to spend it with them. If you need some quiet time to finish something to a high standard, ask to work from home. Remember that nothing is ever so urgent that you can take 20 minutes to stand up, move away from your desk and get some air. None of this makes you weak, flaky or implies that you don’t care about your job. It makes you human. The world won’t fall apart. As Eleanor Morgan, author of Anxiety: A Beginner’s Guide puts it ‘anxiety is part of what it is to be alive’ and so is depression.  

Take your lunch break, it exists for a reason. No boss worth their salt will ever make you feel bad for this. What happened when I went to work off the back of my delayed flight and three hours sleep? My editor told me I should have told her, got some rest and come in for a half day. The fact that I didn't do this says more about our culture broadly than the reality of what was expected of me. 

Ask for as much flexibility as possible, do things on your own terms when you need to. As much as you work for your employer, your work has to work for you too. It’s a two-way street. Talking about this won’t change anything, putting it into practice will. 

Like this? You might also be interested in:

When It Comes To Young Men And Mental Health, Talking About It Isn't Enough 

Is There Life After SSRIs?

We Need To Find A Better Way To Talk About Anxiety 

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt 

Tags: Mental health