The twenty-first century workplace can be a bewildering setting in which to spend most of your waking existence. Those of us in western professional jobs could be considered blessed compared with our ancestors. Few can complain about risks of physical injury or life-threatening injustice.
Scratch the surface, however, and there are frequent examples of mental health under strain: sleepless nights; anti-depressant prescriptions and loneliness, to name a few.
As an occupational psychologist, I have listened to many people’s experience of work. Quite a number have been in higher education across a range of institutions, others have been in a variety of professional jobs: social workers, architects and doctors amongst others. There are some almost universal themes.
Most people are coping. In fact, most are more than coping. They are often very successful. Their colleagues or clients would probably be amazed to hear that they feel fragile psychologically, some or all of the time.
Behind the scenes, however, many feel that there are few people they can trust. They feel in fierce competition with colleagues especially if there are redundancies in the air. Some feel a sharp sense of so-called imposter syndrome – living in fear that they will be exposed for not being as good at their job as others think they are. They may rarely experience a satisfying sense of a day well spent. They are trying to meet conflicting demands on their time. They are tired. They may have an increasing sense of being overlooked or side-lined for unclear reasons. They may feel that they “are owed” by their employer, after many hours of overtime, or having prioritised their work over their family or leisure time once too often. They may simply feel that they have an overwhelming workload.
This mindset arrives gradually. Most begin enthusiastically, and most continue to be enthusiastic about their field or subject, some (if not all) characteristics of their employing organisation, and at least some of their colleagues. But it can become a draining cycle of mistrust, exhaustion and conflict.
This often results in a modern fight or flight response. Going into meetings with all guns blazing, or maybe engaging in something of a more Machiavellian nature; or alternatively, working to rule in some way. This may mean working from home as much as possible; focusing on one or two aspects of the job that are considered to have most career benefit or are the most enjoyable; or withdrawing from contact with colleagues. These are all strategies. None of them is especially comfortable (or likely to meet organisational needs effectively) though.
It seems to me that this amounts to a threat to the professional population’s mental health which is often hidden from view. Collectively, how resilient are we? At a time when we arguably need to be ever more productive, creative and collaborative, how are we nurturing a mental strength and flexibility which is up to the task?
In the face of complex working challenges, both organisations and individuals often respond by working yet harder; demanding higher qualifications, longer hours, and, given the technological advances, to be available for work almost all of the time. True, a lot can be achieved by hard work.
But I like to imagine what we might achieve if the majority of us were feeling on top form, able to think clearly and work together to maximise our strengths and support each other. Maybe I’m idealistic.
Nevertheless, just imagine.
Sarah Dale is a chartered occupational psychologist and author of Keeping Your Spirits Up. She has a business background as a chartered accountant, and runs her own consultancy, Creating Focus. She is currently looking for inspiring women of age sixty plus to interview or to invite to write letters to her as part of her plans for her next book. For more details, contact Sarah on email@example.com or 07748 494688.
Sarah’s website is www.creatingfocus.org and she can also be followed on twitter (@creatingfocus) or Facebook (Creating Focus).