The connection between mental health and experiences at work is rarely discussed in the UK corporate and mainstream media. Overall understanding and support for mental health difficulties has increased but the media will often focus on the personal stories of celebrities and fail to look to root causes and factors. In the UK, this has given rise, recently, to a debate, initiated by a TV personality, as to whether high profile sports stars that withdraw from events citing mental health lack mental strength and are making excuses for inadequacies.
A wave of peer, media and public support has come in for sports stars who speak openly about mental health difficulties, such as US gymnast Simone Biles, who withdrew from some of her events during the Tokyo Olympics on mental health grounds. Some UK media sources reported the story and the accusation of weakness made by a TV personality against her, without referencing Biles’ history of sexual abuse by a former US Gymnastics physician and the institutional cover-up, nor her diagnosis of ADHD – nor the fact she is considered one of the greatest gymnasts in history. The precise personal concerns that led to Biles’ withdrawing from events this year are not known.
The debate is empty, given that, by definition, an individual who is unwell and takes time off is acknowledging lack of some capacity. Recent data in the UK shows a sharp and growing increase, in the past few years, of older women who challenge employers for discrimination against them due to perimenopausal symptoms. This, too, is an acknowledgement of health difficulties – and an intolerance to discrimination and unfair treatment, which may have gone unspoken in the past. Generalisations about the weakness of their personality and or that of their generation, as a whole, are speculative.
The corporate media, in the UK, rarely ask why it is that not all individuals have the benefit of taking time off work to recuperate their health and to receive treatment, if necessary. Health inequalities exist and ‘debates’ about the character of high profile individuals merely distracts.
After allegations of abuse and bullying in UK gymnastics, a review was initiated, with an interim report published early this year. Around 400 people have submitted information and the review team has referred 39 cases to the police. The review lead, Anne Whyte QC, identified common claims in the submissions of: “bullying, belittling, extreme weight management, regular over-stretching, use of excessive physical force, training on serious injuries, gas-lighting, coercive control and a reluctance to raise complaints/lack of opportunity to do so”. The full review findings are expected this month. 17 former gymnasts are currently suing British Gymnastics for negligence and breach of duty after abusive treatment by coaches.
A leaked report produced by thirteen junior bankers at Goldman Sachs, in the US, earlier this year, called for an 80 hour working week cap. They reported “inhumane” conditions at the investment bank, including 100-hour work weeks and “abuse” from colleagues which has severely affected their mental health. The bank responded, recently, by increasing junior bankers salaries to $110,000, excluding bonuses, going up to $125,000 in their second year.
A former senior banker, who previously worked at Goldman Sachs and headed the London Stock Exchange for eight years, Xavier Rolet, dismissed the workers’ complaints. He wrote on LinkedIn, “How many single working mothers trying to put several kids through school do you think work less than 130 hours a week?” He added elsewhere, “It’s a free world. If you don’t love what you’re doing or think the hours don’t suit your lifestyle, by any means do something else.”
Early this year, workers at Cigna, a US health insurance provider, started a petition demanding improved work conditions. As well as challenging a pay freeze, they demanded an end to harassment by management pressing them to meet production metrics and asked for means to report customer abuse. Workers reported that pressure to meet targets meant that they are monitored and pushed to field as many calls as possible, making provision of a meaningful service to customers challenging. In turn, the poor service rebounded upon them, as one worker stated: “There were times when I was the sixth customer service advocate that they’ve talked to in the last couple of weeks, and nothing is getting resolved. Nothing. This is a customer who has called multiple times and they’re upset.” Another worker, speaking to The Guardian, claimed that pay was deducted by Cigna for any time lost to technical difficulties whilst working from home.
Berlin grocery delivery start-up, Gorillas, which was launched last year and reached a $1bn valuation in nine months, has faced strikes and warehouse blockades by its workers this summer. The company has risen during the pandemic on the back of its model of a 10 minute delivery service for groceries at market rate and reliance on low paid and often, migrant, workers. It presents itself as an alternative to the gig economy model, as it employs its warehouse workers and riders, providing annual leave and sick pay. However, workers challenge this portrayal, claiming harsh and precarious work conditions, including unfair terminations, excessive delivery weights, lack of administrative and technical support, delays to sick pay and inaccurate pay checks. A Gorillas Working Collective was set up in February 2021 by workers and, in June, issued a set of 19 demands, including, provision of two days off in a row in a week for full-time workers. The US’ largest food delivery company DoorDash, has recently been reported to be in talks with Gorillas over investment and, some have speculated, a buy-out, which may affect workers’ efforts to assert their rights.
A recently published study on the health of UK middle-aged adults, born in 1970, as part of the so-called generation X, found that 1 in 3 had at least two chronic physical or mental health conditions. Those raised in poorer families were found to have a 43% greater chance of having multiple long-term health conditions, such as high-risk drinking, diabetes, high blood pressure and poor mental health. David Gondek, of University College London (UCL), who authored the study, said that: “Compared to previous generations, it appears that the health of British adults in midlife is on the decline.” Since 2011, historical improvements in life expectancy, for men and women, has slowed drastically in the UK, most significantly in deprived areas. Public Health England have argued that widening inequality has played a part and noted that health and social care services were underfunded during this period.
Mental health issues often have roots in the structure and culture of society. Those who focus only on individuals deflect attention from the abusive and exploitative hierarchies that are causing or exacerbating hardship and illness for so many – as well as the efforts by workers and unions to assert humane conditions.