Who is the problem?

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It’s an analogy I’ve used before. If you and I work in the same workplace, and we both develop symptoms of asbestosis, it is fairly safe to assume that a few things would happen. We would get treated for our asbestosis. There would probably be some testing of our colleagues, some education to them around warning signs they might want to look out for, and safety measures to adopt, and perhaps some review of historical data to see whether there were previous cases. And at the same time, and just as importantly, there would be a thorough review of our workplace to locate and remove the offending asbestos, quite probably accompanied by similar exercises at other buildings built at the same time and by the same developers.

Because we know all about the dangers of asbestos these days, there would be little need to research the causes of our symptoms and those charged with making our workplace safe would know what they were looking for. When the dangers of asbestos were first revealed, and huge numbers of people were showing up with symptoms of asbestosis, there was a concerted campaign across our built environment to remove it.

So what is the analogy? Over the last decades there has been a very welcome, and much needed, focus on our mental health. This has been as much in the workplace as anywhere else. There have been awareness raising campaigns, training and supports put in place to take care of those that are suffering. In wider society an ever increasing share of health budgets is focussed on mental health, and an ever increasing number of people are receiving treatment of some kind – normally in the form of medication but also therapeutic treatment. And yet, despite all this investment of energy, time and money, our mental health crisis worsens every year. What is going on?

This is the central question asked, and answered, by Dr James Davies in his 2021 book Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created our Mental Health Crisis. Dr Davies argues powerfully and convincingly that much of the thinking around that crisis is flawed and misdirected. In a wide ranging review of social, economic and health policy in the UK and globally over the last decades, he describes how mental illness, distress, has been individualised – if you are struggling to cope then it is, ultimately, a problem with you. Go and get some help, take the time you need, and come back when you are better and are able once again to cope. We are much kinder and more understanding these days, and we have invested in much more resource to help the individual, but ultimately that is still the message. The problem is you and you need to get fixed.

What, he asks, if the problem is not with the individual but with the system? If the problem were all at an individual level then presumably the explosion of awareness and resource over the last decades would have had an impact – if all that effort was properly directed we would see rates of mental distress declining, surely? And of course the opposite is the case. Covid has exacerbated the situation but the data and trend was painfully apparent long before the pandemic. It is getting worse year on year.

Of course mental distress will have multiple causes – trauma, genes, upbringing and much more may make someone more or less vulnerable. It is unrealistic and unhelpful to suggest it is all the fault of the system, just as it is wrong to assume the problem is all to do with the individual. But none of those individual factors explains the growing crisis.

Dr Davies explores in some detail the responsibility of successive governments and the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry for designing and perpetuating this flawed approach and calls for widescale and fundamental reform of many aspects of social and health policy. Much of that may feel beyond the capacity of individuals, other than to pressurise and lobby our politicians to do better.

But we can all take steps in our own workplaces to change the system and to make small differences that, together, will have an impact on the system. It is the stuff that we at byrne·dean talk about every day – kindness, respect, inclusion, understanding and listening. It's about daring to be different, daring to change the status quo, removing the unnecessary stress we cause each other and ourselves every day, to build healthier and more effective ways of working. Our work with the Mindful Business Charter is all about doing just that – looking at how we interact with each other, within and between our organisations, becoming more aware of the negative impact we may have on each other (and ourselves) and giving the permission and language to talk about it and do something about it.

If I am struggling, please do give me help and support, signpost me to resources and so on, but let’s stop assuming the problem is all with me and let’s look at why so many of us are experiencing distress. And maybe together we could launch a concerted campaign to remove the asbestos, the stress, from our workplace environments, and stop creating and embedding systems and attitudes that are building stress into the very fabric of our working lives.

Read the book. It is hard hitting and uncomfortable at times. But it is very hard to argue with the central themes. And if you want to talk about how you can make a difference in your workplace then please do get in touch.


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