Mental health is another form of labour
A few thoughts on workplace wellness
Workplace wellness and mental health at work have been on my mind for a while. A couple of thoughts and sub-thoughts floating around here:
Thought 1: The very strict boundaries of how mental health is allowed to show up at work
There is an expectation that we should be mentally well at work.
Even when we are not mentally well there is a very prescribed framework in which it is acceptable to express this at work. Mental health days. Burnout. Particularly insidious Linkedin posts laying bare your own mental health struggles to praise the beneficence of your employer for allowing you to be ‘vulnerable and raw’
It’s not ok to do things like displaying negative emotionality at work. Having mental health struggles is only okay insofar as it features as merely a superficial, decorative layer to your productivity that fundamentally doesn’t challenge anything about the meaning and nature of your work.
I particularly hate burnout narratives as an example of this. “I worked myself to total breakdown because I am just too hardworking and so entirely invested in the capitalist dream → Now I am burnt out and have to take a rest → The learning is that I need to manage things better so I can not burn out in the future and can instead KEEP WORKING and put my nose back to the grindstone, albeit at a slightly slower pace”
Of course not all individuals follow this path but it’s a culture trope, and I hate it!
Thought 2: Recovery under our current systems is an individual activity, not a social one
The burden on recovery is entirely on the individual. I read a sad comment on an Elpha post a little while ago where the OP said ‘I know my mental health isn’t my employer’s responsibility’ . Why do we let that assumption go unchallenged? (And why does the challenge itself often look so weak?)
There’s this pressure, and this doesn’t come just from employers, that YOU need to get well, wellness is for your free time and shouldn’t impinge on your work self. You need to spend your time and money on mindfulness, yoga, therapy etc. Or, perhaps your employer will pay for you to do these things, but the burden is always on you, the individual, to change yourself, the narrative is that you are broken and faulty, and your employer might be so kind as to make certain ‘accommodations’ but really it is unreasonable to expect too much.
I am reminded of some of the disability studies literature here about how disability is often a result of choices in built environments, social expectations etc that end up being placed on the individual and conceptualised as a disability, something medicalised and biological and inherent to the individual in a way that masks all the other contributing factors.
This is also reflected in the kinds of solutions that get attention + capital in mental health tech and healthcare (in that we see the way out of this trap through this highly individualistic lens) e.g. IAPT, BetterHelp, Headspace, the endless litany of journalling, mindfulness, online CBT, ACT, yoga apps. Individual intervention after individual intervention. How can we deliver recovery as quickly and efficiently as possible, with the least amount of human interaction possible (or through the further commodification of human interactions like therapy) so we can get everyone back to work?
Thought 3: Mental health becomes another form of emotional labour
Mental health has become another way we end up spending our free time actually working for our employer or doing career oriented (economic) activities, as well as performative emotional labour within the workplace itself. All that individual recovery time and effort I mentioned above (the meditation, the yoga, the cardio activities, the therapy, the nice soothing bath or time taken for a woodland walk) so often ends up being co-opted.
Mental health ends up being necessary preparation for the workplace, in the same way that purchasing, washing, ironing and wearing a suit or a uniform is. This is especially irksome and unpleasant when the workplace itself is the cause of so much of our distress - the necessity of building oneself up constantly, because the stressors of work are just so draining that mental health becomes a prerequisite to basic financial survival, and not something one does for oneself because it’s just a very important part of human flourishing and living well.
There’s a bunch of interesting questions here that I don’t think I have very good answers to yet. E.g: what does more systemic rather than individual recovery look like? Is there anything that individual workplaces can do to help? How much of this is inherent in employment systems where power is hoarded by a few - does more co-operative ownership or self-employment help at all with this?
This is also part of a much broader and currently quite tangled mess of ideas I have around mental health on the one hand (excessive medicalisation, being culture-bound, unpleasant intersections between tech and mental health, or governments and mental health) as well as economic behaviour (which so often gets privileged as one of the most important forms of human behaviour both in analysis and in metaphor, a personal bugbear of mine that I’m sure I’ll explore some other time)
I may also follow up with a recommended reading list - there’s so much interesting writing around this topic.
Well, that concludes my first Substack ever! A nice little milestone for me and hopefully, dear reader, for you too.