Work can ruin your mental health

My first job after I left school was as a shorthand typist in an insurance company. I hated it. This was not only because the work was boring, but because I and the other two young starters were bullied remorselessly by the manager and the supervisor. Their personalities were intimidating, and they were supported by working practices designed to manage by fear and control. We were not allowed to talk. Our desks faced the wall. At the end of the day our wastepaper baskets would be emptied, and the wasted paper, because in those days any mistake on the typewriter meant you had to start again, was counted. We would then be summoned to the manager’s office and berated for up to fifteen minutes. I would leave at the end of the day rustling. Jumpers were the clothing of choice as they managed to hide at least some of the incriminating evidence. The stress started to impact on my health. I couldn’t sleep and I began to experience the Sunday afternoon dread, familiar to anyone working in a toxic environment.

It would be nice to think that these experiences, based on humiliation and antiquated working practices, have no relevance in workplaces today.

Sadly, if anything my experience from having worked in the area of organisational practices shows that, for many, work continues to be a source of serious stress.

There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence. Conversations with friends and family highlight a range of working practices that one would think would have no part in modern workplaces. Setting unachievable targets is a popular means of control. These targets are then used month after month as a threat to job security. One young man recently told me how staff were given the concession of leaving an hour earlier on a Friday. That was unless they had failed to reach their target that week. These were targets that were recognised as being unachievable in the current climate, unless staff had been in post for over three years. The rest of the office would leave, including those in the non-target driven posts like HR, and maybe two would be left twiddling their thumbs in an empty office for the last hour. He described it as humiliating and demotivating.

The scale of the problem is such that no sector is immune. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has been forced to issue the following guidance: “We have received complaints that some law firms have an unsupportive, bullying or toxic working environment and culture.

These include concerns ranging from systemic bullying, discrimination or harassment to the failure to address such unacceptable behaviours when complaints are raised.”

 One sector that comes up constantly as having deep-rooted problems since privatisation is Royal Mail. Postal workers describe a whole host of policies and procedures that have been introduced to monitor their every move.

One said online. “We are bullied daily. Made to leave letters and parcels to concentrate on tracked and specials. The manager swears and shouts at you. Moves you around so not talking to friends in office. Horrible toxic place to work”

Another said, “Many of the instances where our Royal Mail post is delayed, there is a Postman/Postwoman signed off work with depression, anxiety and physical injury, likely as a consequence of the workplace bullying they endure at the hands of their employers.”

Some of the evidence discussed at a recent House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee meeting included examples of bar charts being displayed in delivery offices to compare the ‘stand still’ time gathered via the tracking devices (postal delivery assistants PDAs).   

Those working from home for a range of call centres are not immune from these controlling practices. Their computers are fitted with devices that monitor the amount of time they spend away from their desks. In some instances, they are not allowed more than two comfort breaks a day.

So, in the intervening decades since I started work, the cultures of some workplaces have, if anything become even more toxic. It is difficult to comprehend how those being paid, in some cases large sums of money to increase the revenue of their organisation, are not aware of the link between a bullying style of management and declining productivity. This is certainly the case with Royal Mail. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that in June 2023 Citizen’s Advice was forced to issue a statement that 15.7 million people experienced letter delays in just one month causing negative consequences for over 7 million people, including missed hospital appointments. It called on Ofcom to carry out a full root and branch review of postal delays.

Of course, the real victims are those whose health is being affected by being forced to work in these hostile workplaces, When sustained over a long period these behaviours can result in severe stress, social and relationship problems, physical ill health and in some serious cases self-harm and even suicide.

Whilst the Alan Sugar style of management portrayed in the television series ‘The Apprentice’ may make good TV for some, the reality of setting team members against each other and threatening their job security daily is extremely harmful, not only for the individual but also for the long-term health of the organisation.  In the interests of everyone this has to change.

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