As you may or may not know. October 10 is recognized by the World Health Organization as “Mental Health Day”. As it turns out, this year the focus is on mental health in the workplace.
During our adult lives, a large proportion of our time is spent at work. Our experience in the workplace is one of the factors determining our overall wellbeing. Employers and managers who put in place workplace initiatives to promote mental health and to support employees who have mental disorders see gains not only in the health of their employees but also in their productivity at work. A negative working environment, on the other hand, may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity.
For many reason, this is a subject that is near and dear to me. One, because of my own prior history, and two because I’ve worked in a couple of industries that do themselves no favors when it comes to on the job stress, technology and legal.
It’s also interesting that this comes up when we are starting to see more articles around the idea that working all of those hours is actually pretty awful for us.
Speaking from my own view, some of those extra hours can create a situation where not only is the balance between work and life off-kilter, but some of us have become so work focuses we don’t actually know how to have a life. Consider:
It’s to the point that people even brag about being super busy at work. “There’s tremendous societal/professional pressure to be seen as ‘busy’ … as ‘important, valuable, useful and in-the-loop’ at work. How many of us love to brag that we’re too busy to take vacations, or read books, or spend time with family?” says Zimmerman.
Of course, some of this busyness is that we work more than we did in decades past, with the average American who is employed full-time working about 47 hours per week, according to Gallup. And about 18 percent of them work more than 60 hours a week.
Yes somehow, we have managed to make being a horrible spouse/parent/friend into a status symbol.
Or, better yet, consider this inability to even just be a human being from my own world, law firms:
At Peter’s memorial service in 2015 — held in a place he loved, with sweeping views of the Pacific — a young associate from his firm stood up to speak of their friendship and of the bands they sometimes went to see together, only to break down in tears. Quite a few of the lawyers attending the service were bent over their phones, reading and tapping out emails.
Their friend and colleague was dead, and yet they couldn’t stop working long enough to listen to what was being said about him.
There is something massively wrong with any industry that can’t even stop working long enough to attend a funeral. It’s an industry that is no longer employing people, actual human beings. It’s one that has dehumanized everything about itself, all while trying to claim to be about helping people.
And yet, while we make these ridiculous demands of people’s lives and time, we then turn around and fail to support their mental health when the stress starts to get to be too much. I’ve seen far too many people who have said of someone who either got out of this racket, or struggled with addiction and/or mental health issues that “they couldn’t hack it”. I’m sure there were plenty of people who said that about me when I chose to leave my job traveling all over the world to simply work in an office 8 hours a day, that maybe I couldn’t hack it. Truth be told, I just didn’t want to hack it any more. I didn’t want to pay the price of having no connections to any one or any place.
But it’s not just an employee benefit to take care of people with mental health care, and to not place so much emphasis on hours worked, it’s also a determent to the companies themselves. As even Melinda Gates has pointed out:
The result is a work ethic that hurts everyone, writes Gates. When companies demand that employees work themselves into the ground, those that want to balance career with family life lean out. Some of them leave the corporate world altogether, which limits diversity.
And those who stay are less productive. They “have to dedicate so much energy to simply keeping their heads above water, instead of thinking of ways to create more value,” she writes.
It’s true. In my time in the legal industry, I have known a fair number of female lawyers. Some of them have continued to work in the law firm environment, while many others have left it, to take on work that gives them more flexibility as they started families and wanted to devote time to raising kids. That leaves many firms with a much smaller percentage of women in leadership positions, not because they were being sexist in hiring, but because the workplace environment was not friendly to doing anything but working all the time. Not just that, but I’ve also seen brilliant people of all ages, genders and races, lean out as well, opting to do something that wasn’t as restrictive and dominated by “hours worked” as the legal industry is. Much like the technology sector, part of the diversity issue is that we make it hard for anyone who isn’t exactly like us to succeed. Startup founders who like to sit up all night and hack, tend to hire other people willing to do the same, and are not good at providing alternatives. Those who don’t want to do that, or who do not handle that level of stress well, frankly, aren’t welcome. That means we have these whole industries who’s very model of workplace behavior is antithetical to being working parents, or wanting to take time to take care of ourselves physically and mentally.
And then we wonder why the rates of depression and anxiety are what they are these days? And it’s no wonder why this is the issue being highlighted by WHO this year. It’s a problem that is only getting worse. Your people, not your human capital, not your labor costs, not your code monkeys, your PEOPLE, the human beings who work for your company, deserve better.
Not to mention, you probably get better, more focused work, with short work days.
So there’s that too.