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Fancy a coffee? Why taking an hour out on World Mental Health Day is a good idea

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In 1993, the American psychologist James Hillman published a book called “We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse”.   In our Management Agenda 2019 survey of 760 managers in the UK and Ireland, almost three-quarters agreed that work-related mental health and well-being issues are on the increase.  Yet only 40% of those respondents had amended working practices or reasonable adjustment on offer in their organisations.  Even more worryingly, only 30% had an environment that engenders an open and supportive culture of discussing mental health.  And just over half of respondents would feel comfortable talking about mental health issues with their manager.

With the continuation of the “harder, faster, longer” culture of working hours, and even fewer opportunities to switch off from mobile communications, are we in danger of increasing our awareness of the problem, but lessening our ability to do something about it?  In a society where the only socially accepted norm of answering the “how are you” question at work is “busy”, are we ignoring the symptoms of overwhelm?  And, with the culture of supporting individuals (occasionally) while not changing the working practices, are we in danger of confusing the symptom with the problem?

In his 1993 work, Hillman talks about the necessity of changing the economic and social norms, in addition to providing individual support and therapy.  I would argue that a similar approach is even more necessary today.  We may talk about mental health in the workplace more openly than we did in the 1990s, but we are still a long way from addressing the issues that lie behind the symptoms.  Issues such as the gig economy, an increase of zero-hour contracts and self-employed workers who are not provided with pensions or benefits by their employers.  Even for people in full employment, there is an unchallenged acceptance of a culture of long working hours, non-existent lunch breaks, and unused holiday allowances.  Many of us take pride in being “constantly on” and constantly available to our bosses, clients and co-workers.

This culture may be one of the last vestiges of the Industrial Age, and the first mechanistic approaches to “scientific management”, where workers were treated as resources, to be planned, utilised, and replaced when worn out.  The Information Age, while questioning many of the 20th century working practices, seems not to have got round to challenging this one.  If anything, with the rise of digital technology and AI/human replacements, human workers are seen as even more expendable, to be replaced by technology that does not need sleep, rest, or joy.

Human biology has not, however, caught up with this desire: if anything, more of us report issues of anxiety, depression, or stress.  And increasingly, we turn to technology, rather than fellow humans – or the world of nature – to alleviate our symptoms.

This does not seem to be working for any of us, and the statistics prove it.

So perhaps the best we could do for ourselves, our colleagues and our workplaces, is to take an hour out of our day on World Mental Health Day, and have a walk, a chat, or some food with a co-worker; to treat them as fellow humans rather than human resources; to really enquire about their day rather than pass a quick “how are you” in the corridor; to tend to each other’s mental health in the same way that we would tend to any other living thing: with care, compassion, and tenderness.

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