Poor mental health is a cultural problem, not a commercial one

By Oliver Pink

12th May 2017

Ah, Mental Health Awareness Week—that glorious seven days of May in which business leaders fall over themselves to prove how important mental wellbeing is to corporate culture.

Initiatives are unveiled, missions are pledged and new HR guidelines drawn up. And quite right, too. Some of these are incredibly valuable when it comes to ameliorating the symptoms of mental ill health.

But they are almost universally impotent in eradicating the causes.

While you’re pondering that, let’s consider how effective Mental Health Awareness Week is anyway. The fact that someone has gingerly inserted the word ‘awareness’ in what should clearly be called ‘Mental Health Week’ lends a clue.

‘Awareness’ must surely join ‘tolerance’ and ‘open-mindedness’ on the awards shortlist for passive, misty, do-nothing bullshit.

(If your partner walked into your kitchen and told you your toaster had caught on fire, would you put it out? Or would you just glance over and reply ‘I’m aware of it’).

We can’t – and shouldn’t – pretend that this conversation is a new one. That ‘awareness’ is the first step. That we’re slowly realising how important change is. That it needs a bit of time to develop and seep into our culture.

I know this because, as far back as 1987 – amid the glory days of neoliberalism – David Ogilvy, then CEO of his eponymous global advertising agency wrote:

Some of our people spend their entire working lives in our agency. We do our damnedest to make it a happy experience. I put this first, believing that superior service to our clients and profits for our stockholders depend on it.

We treat our people like human beings. We help them when they are in trouble – with their jobs, with illness, with alcoholism, and so on.

We help our people make the best of their talents. We invest an awful lot of time and money in training – perhaps more than any of our competitors.

And yet, three decades on, it is still not working.

Perhaps it’s time to admit that people experiencing mental ill health are incongruent with the modern working environment:

  • Poor mental health in the workplace is inconvenient—when people aren’t working at full capacity, it usually means someone has to pick up the slack.
  • Most of the time, it’s invisible—a rarely-admired trait in the corporate world.
  • Finally, it’s uncomfortable—trying to cram in conversations about feelings and emotional states into daily office speak just doesn’t fit. Some people are on important deadlines. Others, who pride themselves on their aptitude for solving problems, suddenly feel helpless.

Although I strongly believe this to be the truth that daren’t be spoken, it implies that sufferers are the problem child in this equation. With almost four-fifths of the British workforce experiencing symptoms of poor mental health, this simply can’t be the case.

Nigel Lawson once wrote that we can fix the economy but not human nature. Though the former chancellor certainly didn’t intend his words to be used in this context (which gives me particular delight in doing so), it is no less relevant.

We can’t mend the human condition, but we can change what we expect of it.

But it needs to be a big change.

Matthew Taylor, the former policy chief to Tony Blair; now adviser to Theresa May and chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) used a speech on Tuesday to admonish the British working culture. He warned against ‘cog in a machine’ employment, saying that stressful, dead-end jobs are bad for people and bad for productivity.

He cited the UK’s most comprehensive survey of working life, which showed that 37 per cent of workers were stressed always or often in 2012, up from 28 per cent in 1989.

This line of thought certainly doesn’t stand alone. Earlier this year, Canadian author Douglas Coupland branded the 9—5 “barbaric” and that future generations will view it as comparable to child labour in the 19th century. Coupland goes as far as to say that work as we know it is coming to an end, as technology makes the very nature of an office obsolete, just as the industrial revolution afforded us the weekend.

Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK takes a more mischievous tone: “sod hard-working families: let’s have a four day week,” he writes in the Spectator. “People are often more productive when they work fewer hours.”

In a 2008 article, Sutherland laid the blame of an increasingly stressful working environment squarely at the door of the Americans. “The introduction of the American work ethic to the UK has had appalling effects on quality of life… long work hours are dangerously self-reinforcing.”

Before we start adopting US working practices, he continues, “we should remind ourselves that the white American genetic make-up is exclusively drawn from the most restless, obsessive, zealous, neurotic and friendless five per cent of the European population.”


Mental health and working culture

Perhaps it’s worth investigating this increasingly crisp link between working culture and mental health. It is, after all, hard to ignore the statistic that the United States has the third highest proportion of people suffering from depression, anxiety and alcohol and drug abuse.

Teresa Arbuckle, managing director of Beko, once described her experience working across different business cultures:

“The American business culture is almost punishingly egalitarian: male or female, it demands undying commitment and is unforgiving to those who do not fully invest in it. Working through the night; travelling on the weekend. These are the widely accepted rules of success, which people must accept regardless of their circumstance. It is a binary system, you’re either in or you’re out.

“There is a sadomasochistic pleasure in sending out emails at very unpleasant hours, proof that you’re working harder than anyone else.

Holiday is still a four letter word in America. Rather than the British fortnight, people will take long weekends so the boss doesn’t see an empty desk. A full week off is your maximum and this doesn’t really change throughout your business life.”

This is congruent with broader American culture, according to Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, whose widely-quoted and comprehensive study threw a new light on national values and how they affect cross-cultural communication.

He draws particular distinction between individualist and collectivist cultures. Asia, for example, shares a collectivist culture: one that is based on valuing the needs of a group or a community over the individual. By contrast, individualist cultures such as the US and – to a lesser extent – the UK, a person is expected to bear the consequences of their own decisions.

According to a global study by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United States tends to have higher prevalence estimates across most classes of mental health disorder while prevalence was lower in Asian countries in general.


Working culture and happiness
Perhaps there is something to be said for Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, not to mention taking a leaf from countries that seem to have ‘happiness’ nailed. Below, I have investigated the link between Hofstede’s country profiles and their population’s happiness – ranked by the United Nations’ World Happiness Report – across four nations, starting with our closest European neighbour, France.

France (6.4/10 happiness score)

Poignantly, this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week began almost concurrently with the announcement that France had elected a new President. A President who surely provides some welcome relief amid 12 months of unpleasant political shocks, but who is also famously ambivalent towards his country’s prized 35-hour working week (as economy minister, he suggested scrapping the 35-hour rule. Instead, he plans to introduce flexibility on overtime.)

This cap on working hours has been in situ since 2000, and had two founding objectives: to reduce unemployment (which it hasn’t) and give workers more personal time, thus improving quality of life (which it has).

Interestingly, Arbuckle in her 2014 article wrote: “in France, it’s the other end of the spectrum. Some offices are more or less empty from the end of July to the beginning of September. It’s very normal to be out for four or five weeks at a time.”

This, again, is consistent with Hofstede’s analysis. France’s unusually high level of power distance – the extent to which the less powerful accept that power is distributed unequally – combined with a high score for individualism (71 against the American 91) is symptomatic of the French demand for a sharp distinction between work and private life.
But it is Hofstede’s unfortunately titled ‘Masculinity’ dimension – which indicates how much a society is driven by competition, achievement and success, with success defined by a clear winner – that correlates most closely with emotional wellbeing.
France’s relatively low masculinity score, for example, is clearly represented by tangible attributes within its working culture: a capped working week, generous holiday and focus on quality of life.

Finland (7.5/10 happiness score)

Finland, which ranks consistently high in global happiness indices, shares this ‘feminine’ quality with France, with an even lower score of 26. There, the focus is on “working in order to live”, managers strive for consensus, people value equality, solidarity and quality in their working lives.

Many Finnish businesses have adopted flexible working hours which mean that you can come to work, for example, between 7 and 9am and leave between 3 and 5pm.

In 2015, David Zweig on Huff Post wrote that Scandinavian countries generally share the tradition of Janteloven, or the Law of Jante: “a series of rules that, in essence, command self-effacement and humility. In much of Scandinavian society, including the business culture, it’s anathema to be a loudmouth or big self-promoter.”


Sweden (7.3/10 happiness score)

Sweden made headlines in 2016 when it was reported that it was switching to a six-hour work day throughout the country, in order to improve focus, heighten staff productivity, and give people more time outside the office.

Therefore, it should come as little surprise that Sweden scores the lowest on the Masculine dimension (5 out of a possible score of 100), according to Hofstede. Conflicts are resolved by compromise and negotiation and Swedes are known for their long discussions until consensus has been reached. Swedes are entitled to 25 days of annual leave, and the Swedish propensity to take five-week summer vacations is one of the most beloved parts of the national culture.

Sweden’s already-generous parental leave — 16 months off in total, to be shared between the two parents, with two months reserved exclusively to be taken by dads — was expanded in 2016; fathers now have three months reserved entirely for time with their new children. Parents earn 80 percent of their normal salary while on leave.

Also, the daily coffee break, known as fika, is so important that it’s part of the main advice given to foreign workers at Swedish companies.

Norway (7.5/10 happiness score)

Norway is the happiest place to live, according to the latest United Nations World Happiness report. According to Hofstede, Norway is second only to the Swedes when it comes to feminine culture. Softer aspects of society are valued and encouraged such as levelling with others, consensus, “independent” cooperation and sympathy for the underdog.

Trying to be better than others is neither socially nor materially rewarded. Societal solidarity in life is important; work to live and do your best. Incentives such as free time and flexibility are favoured. Interaction through dialog and “growing insight” is valued and self development along these terms encouraged.


The bottom line: mental health is indivisible from a nation’s culture

Challenging the status quo is woven into the heart of any good business. And companies should take pride in all efforts to improve the quality of life for their teams—they certainly aren’t universal.

But the truth is that one company, no matter how honourable or stringent its efforts to foster mental health, can only go so far in a corporate world which steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the facts.

Mental health is highly rooted in a culture which runs much deeper than enterprise. It is about what society expects of us as human beings. It is about what we are taught to expect from each other.

Politicians speak eloquently about the need to help hard-working families or ‘just about managings’. But the facts are hard to argue with and lead me to an uncomfortable, no doubt controversial conclusion.

Until the neoliberal consensus is broken and rampant competition, individualism and the need to win are faded from socialisation; the prevalence of mental ill health will languish at a stagnant high.

And we, the industry, the government and society will continue to be just about managing the symptoms.