There seems to be this idea floating about in the business world that in order to be profitable and productive, one needs to be hard and tough. Yet another contradictory idea seems to be that mental health is fluffy, soft, weak. Many people’s idea of good mental health is extreme. One where people have full love, consensus and agreement for all. Like everyone holding hands and singing Kumbayah. Nothing could be further from what’s required to promote and maintain a workplace’s mental wealth. Maybe that’s why so many organisations and leaders do so poorly at mental health. Either they adopt the “toughen up! take a spoonful of cement” approach, or they go too far the other way, with a “touchy, feely, anything goes” approach.
Meanwhile, 1 in 5 Australians suffer from a mental disorder and countless others detest going to work. (The stats are similar in other developed nations by the way). How has it become such a pervasive problem in our organisations and why isn’t more being done about it? To understand why, we need to look at the dynamics between the players in our organisations and ask ourselves what might be stopping them from taking action.
The prevailing management style through much of the last couple of centuries has been to keep a professional distance from staff members. The manager’s job was to set the direction and manage the performance of the employee, and the employee’s job was to reliably perform their tasks to the best of their ability. It’s a similar relationship to that between a machine and it’s operator, which is not surprising, given much of the early work was done by men on assembly lines in factories. Employees were cogs in a machine, so to speak, and much of the management and HR thinking was (and still is) centred around ensuring enough employees are available to maintain production, and that they perform reliably and at maximum efficiency. It would be ridiculous for an operator to ask his machine, ‘Are you ok?’. Similarly, many managers today feel that asking an employee about their mental state is not appropriate – it’s too personal, or taboo, or simply ‘not my job’.
The reality is that the prevailing management paradigm is fundamentally not equipped to deal with mental health issues. And that’s the main reason so many workplaces fail. A new paradigm is needed, for a new world of work.