In a recent column in the Telegraph, Boris Johnson—our new prime minister— suggested how “we can improve mental health, save money and boost the economy all in one go.” He drew upon the example of his idol Churchill, who famously suffered from depression, to explain how:
“[T]here was only one means by which he really succeeded in chasing that Black Dog away. It certainly wasn’t alcohol. It was the same therapy that lifts the spirits of hundreds of millions if not billions of people around the world – and that cure is work.”
Johnson’s answer to the one in four people who experience a mental health problem every year, is not that the government needs to provide more funding to support services or education, it is that they need to start pulling up their socks and just work a bit harder. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your job, and I am glad that the people in power are now considering mental health as part of their policy making and encouraging businesses to do more. However, to position work as a “therapy” or even a “cure” is not only ignorant, but dangerous.
High functioning isn’t functioning
Johnson’s idea centres around the belief that “[i]t was with work that [Churchill] pitchforked off his depression; and what was true for Churchill is basically true for all of us: that to a very large extent we derive our self-esteem from what we do. It is often from our jobs – from being engrossed in our daily tasks – that we get that all-important sense of satisfaction.”
This is partly true. On the whole, I genuinely enjoy working. I am lucky enough now to have a job I am passionate about, a supportive workplace and lovely colleagues. But even when I didn’t, I have always liked things I can throw myself into, something that gives me purpose and structure, something to strive towards and lose myself in—whether that was working, studying or doing something creative.
However, working hard hasn’t “cured” my mental health issues. If anything, sometimes, it just fuels them. The term workaholic makes me cringe but it’s pretty accurate: work for many of us is just a socially acceptable addiction. Just like alcohol, it gives you a buzz, something to channel your emotions into or block them out entirely. Therefore, enforcing the idea that we should “derive our self-esteem from what we do”, is not in any way helpful. As Arwa Mahdawi writes in her article on The Guardian, “most of us have internalised the toxic notion that we should value ourselves according to our output. The pressure to constantly feel that we are being productive, to work nonstop, is one reason so many of us feel perpetually burned out.”
526,000 workers in the UK suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17, and 12.5m working days were lost as a result. – Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
There’s a strange culture in this country, another belief cemented by Churchill-era resignation, of “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Basically, “shut the fuck up and push it down”. Johnson’s idea that “[y]es, it is work that sometimes stresses us out, and work that causes anxiety; but it is also work that can absorb us and take us out of ourselves until the clouds are gone” is not wrong in all cases. Sometimes work can be refuge for all the other shit going on it your life (I am sure this has been the case recently for Johnson). But sweeping it under the rug never works, does it? Losing yourself in work might help you feel better in the moment. But you can bet that those clouds will roll back in, bigger than ever.
Who do you work for?
Johnson’s “just work harder” advice also highlights the fact that, in the words of journalist Poorna Bell, “our entire economy is geared towards people being as economically productive as possible” and it is difficult, if not sometimes impossible, not to ground our self-worth within that.
This has huge implications for the people who cannot work because of their mental illness. There is nothing wrong with being too ill to work, whether that’s for one day, one week, one year or longer. Whilst it might provide a welcome distraction for some, work can also be distraction from getting help, and isn’t also going to be able to “cure” people suffering from psychotic conditions or OCD, for example. For some, this notion that we should always be working and “contributing” to the system can be huge source of shame and personal frustration. It can mean that they are kept away from getting the help they critically need because of their commitment to work. In her piece on the subject, Poorna Bell talks about her late husband Rob, who suffered chronic depression:
“I saw first-hand how much shame and guilt he felt. When he really should have gone into a detox facility to get help for his addiction issues, he couldn’t because of the time he’d need to take off work… “I feel like I can’t catch up,” he once said. He, like most people, wanted to work, but felt like he was failing, not just because of mental health stigma, but because of how our society is wired.”
The idea that mental health issues can be cured through working harder also seems to shift blame onto the individual, rather than recognising the faults within the wider social system. Feel overwhelmed? Go and submerge yourself in work! Too depressed to get out of bed? Have you tried working? Although, this is not really a surprising opinion from someone who has almost always voted against supporting those who are unable to work due to illness or disability and the welfare system.
What we actually need
Whilst time will tell what Johnson will do in his new role as prime minister, he talks about potentially incentivising companies to take care of their employees’ mental health and wellbeing through preferential tax treatment. No one is arguing that companies shouldn’t be looking after their employees and, as Johnson implies, many will need a structure and resources to know how to do this. It is also great to hear that he recognises how important being able to go to therapy is to recovery. However, access to mental health support should not depend on your employment status or what type of contract you are on.
Rather than putting the economy top of the list when it comes to policy making, the government should be focusing on individual wellbeing, what people need to survive and thrive—because not only is that the whole damn point of the government, but also because then will we be able to give back to the system in an effective and sustainable way. What we actually need, as Poorna Bell summarises, is “[m]ulti-layered, societal change coupled with adequate services… not chivying people back to their desks.”
“Most of our policies, they said, are driven towards economic productivity, not individual wellbeing: health insurance at work, improvements to the NHS and public transport. We measure success on our GDP, not on whether we are actually thriving as people – and what on earth is a country without people?” – Poorna Bell
It is really disheartening to read such distastefully oblivious yet deeply sinister notions from a man in the most powerful position in the country, and it is hard to not to worry about the future of mental health in UK. However, we need to take hope and assurance from all the mental health advocates, big and small, who won’t stand for this bullshit and will continue to put pressure on the government to actually deliver the “huge progress in tackling and demystifying the problems of mental health.” Johnson talks about (yet doesn’t seem to understand) through robust and sustainable services, support and policies. And we also need to remember our own power as individuals to continue to change the conversation around mental illness and wellbeing in all situations, from parliament to the workplace.
Jodie & The ECBC Team x