The Flaws of the 'Thriving at Work' report, by Nic Murray
Arriving with less fanfare or expectation than the Taylor Review, the recent ‘Thriving at Work’ report commissioned by the government to address mental health at work still contains much of the disappointment held by its predecessor. As with many conversations featuring the topic of mental health, the parameters are set so tightly and the topic so abstracted from its social determinants as to prevent any real radical discussion. On the one hand the report highlights the 300,000 people with mental health problems leaving work each year and notes mental health as one of the greatest causes of sickness absence. On the other hand however, it fundamentally fails to grapple with what exactly might be wrong with work such that is causing this degree of distress in the first place. The following few points can be made about the report’s specific shortcomings.
Heavy workloads and rising working hours are here seen as immutable aspects of employment only adjustable once a mental health problem has been experienced, instead of as factors that should be reconfigured for all workers at all times. Sadly notions such as bans on overtime and a reduced working week as paths toward a healthier society are only briefly entertained during a fleeting look at evidence on work and wellbeing from Scandinavia.
The authors state that after reviewing existing best practice on promoting workplace wellbeing they had found ‘several green shoots of optimism’. However looking at the recommendations they have produced on the back of these, one would wonder if it’s better to salt the earth and start afresh. The proposed six core mental health standards are relatively toothless, enough to be readily adopted by any employer without having to invoke any kind of considered organisational change.
In essence they amount to better awareness and better management, seeing the individual as the site for therapeutic change or support. It promotes resilience and stress management training as well as access to online CBT courses for workers. All of which place the burden of structural problems upon the individual, requiring them to adjust their thoughts and working patterns to stress – which is seen as something inevitable. Mental health awareness training is recommended in order to spot the signs of stress and poor mental health in yourself or fellow workers. The question this leaves unanswered, however, is what if you and everyone around you is perfectly aware that they’re distressed? Again, the report appears to care more for identifying the symptoms rather than addressing the root causes.
This top down approach, as opposed to a collective understanding of work and its ills, is carried through in the optimism it holds for new technologies. Rather than being seen as a way to reconfigure or free us from certain work, the potential for digital tools apparently lies in enabling greater self-monitoring. This desire to quantify the wellbeing of workers is clearest in the call to ‘[increase] employer transparency’ by ‘generating a culture of measurement [enabling] the development of voluntary ranking schemes.’ The report suggests that a wide range of measures including data from surveys or mood trackers could be used to produce wellbeing indexes. If enthusiastically and collectively embraced, these could lead to the further burdening of workers and the proliferation of bureaucracy as PR production currently plaguing the higher education landscape.
The report begins with the hope that in 10 years ‘Employees in all types of employment will have “good work”, which contributes positively to their mental health, our society and our economy.’ We are facing a landscape where “good work” is currently only a reality for three in five workers, and jobs with no positive social contribution are widespread. Navigating a path through these multiple crises towards a more mentally healthy society will mean addressing head on the nature of work, redirecting this conversation to questions of autonomy and meaning rather than simply more talk of awareness.
Nic Murray is a mental health researcher and activist based in London. His Twitter is @nic__murray