'Capitalism' Is Real Culprit Behind Mental Distress In Workplaces
"We didn't ask for a meditation app, we want to be able to pay our rent," was the viral response of employees when Starbucks offered them a free subscription to apps that assist in mental health exercises such as meditation and relaxation techniques. Mental health in the workplace has raised public concerns all over the globe with many organisations stepping up to claim sensitivity and care for their employees' mental well-being. But there seems to be a blind-spot in this collective awareness that poses a question we are too tongue-tied to ask: where is all this stress coming from?
Answering this is metaphorical to finding a strange wire and tracing it back to its origin. Some organisations received public praise over being sensitive to the mental health of their employees. One such news involved an email response of a US-based company's boss to one of his employees overtaking a sick leave for her mental health. The heartfelt reaction by the boss thanking the employee for reminding him the importance of such leaves spark attention but leave gaps into understanding the roots of workplace distress.
One reason to explain these gaps is that we seem to stress more on the existence of the 'symptom' rather than finding out what's causing or maintaining it. With ample research establishing the obviousness of struggle with mental health problems, less emphasis is paid on the meaning of these problems, their subjective experiences, and the discourses that have made sure of their existence.
Undoubtedly, awareness towards this area is important and so is the increasing use of measures like sick days and access to healthcare for employees, but such prevention is tertiary and only acts as a band-aid to a deeper wound. Fixing distress on surface levels is a less-discussed but widely accepted norm in mental healthcare as it prevents us from identifying the larger forces behind psychological distress, be it political, economic, social or an integration of all three: capitalism.
And so it happens that we must attempt to understand mental health issues in the workplace from such an intersectional lens and ask ourselves bitter questions: is it the work that is stressful or is it the conditioning of my capacity to work? Why is it that I feel burned out and yet I push more to chase targets and deadlines? Or, why does taking a break feel like a betrayal?
Living in a 'just world'
To understand this link, it is crucial to first note that the oppressed classes are more vulnerable to developing mental health issues than their privileged counterparts. For years, research has shown significant links between low socioeconomic status, levels of income, poverty, their intersection with caste, and gender with the susceptibility to developing psychological distress. But how does this get transformed into the narrative of productivity?
Capitalism assumes a 'just world' where people who are well off have worked harder for themselves while those who are unemployed and are unable to provide for themselves or their families, despite their marginalisation, are probably not striving enough. A classic example of this dichotomy involves the existence of two kinds of people: one section attributes inspiration to billionaires ignoring the exploitation of workers and the other section which labels the disadvantaged as "freeloaders" for having free access to basic services.
Ability to work hard, multi-task, lead teams and take challenges have become key strengths to every résumé but they allow the shaming of those who remaining equally efficient are unable to identify with such labels. What ends up happening is an internalisation of this exploitation- unless someone adheres to the criteria of productivity set by the organizations, they are neither good enough to stand a chance in the paced world nor do they deserve to be paid.
"I have had nightmares over unfinished work that shall get reviewed the next day and would expect myself to stay back at work just because I thought it was expected of me," says a Bangalore based software engineer, Nandita (name changed) who started as an intern at the company she now works with. "I remember going to the washroom to cry in between work. "
Himani K, a Delhi-based psychologist who works with office employees shared her observations saying, "At a workplace, people often experience as if they have no innate value and labour is all they have to provide. The only way we tend to calculate the labour of a person is through the output they produce. It ends up separating the 'person' from the 'employee'."
Explaining how these parameters conditions people to keep aside their individuality and only envision the profits of the company as their personal goals, Himani continued, "If we lived in a fair system of free and accessible health care, nutrition and education, this system of paying the labour and not the labourer would be just too. But in our current scenario, this internalization leads to people negating personal needs, admiring and glamorising needing less, working more, and all-round feeling undeserving of the basic human rights."
About 50% of the Indian employees suffer from some kind of mental distress as per recent surveys conducted by two leading employee assistance agencies. Note, that this data excludes a major chunk of population from informal sectors or areas such as agriculture. Burnout, a syndrome characterised by a prolonged response to chronic stress at the workplace has also been at a rise in the country. Feelings of personal inefficacy accompanied by emotional exhaustion is a primary feature of burnout but in the system of the free market, burnout is a liability, not a consequence.
In the current epoch of capitalist values, the stress in the workplace, like everything else, is privatised. Having an anxiety attack in the office must be one's problem and so should be the responsibility to deal with it and 'get back to work'. As people get paid less for more time spent in work, the competition hikes extreme levels. For people with high functioning issues, 'being productive' becomes the ultimate goal to survival and a day spent in the absence of markable productivity is a day in which the cycle of self-blame comes to top gear.
"I start feeling guilty if I have taken a break from work," Nandita adds. "I remember working through commutes and lunchtime. It gets very toxic how you start timing all your breaks and feel anxious as soon as you are away from your desk. I would keep reminding myself to get back to work or else what people must already be thinking about me, even though nobody cares. It's as if you are convinced that people are forming opinions about your level of productivity."
In his book, Politics of the Mind: Marxism and Mental Distress, Iain Ferguson argues that mental health is very much a class struggle based on ignorance of personal needs to prioritise the needs of those in power. When asked to explain this approach in an interview the author said, "we live in a society that is based not on meeting human needs first (physical needs or emotional needs) but is driven by the need to accumulate profit. So that means people's needs, whether they're emotional, sexual or whatever, are repressed, distorted or alienated."
How does one get out of these pungent spirals can only be sought through subjective accounts of retaliation and a collective push to recognize the real origins of workplace distress? Started to incorporate but now a full-time writer and poet, Ghazal of Pune recall how despite openly talking about her struggle with bad mental health, she was shunned at her workplace for addressing this. "I never let internalisation get the best of me. I would keep saying no to things that I could not do without letting it affect my calibre. I refused to follow the herd which also made me feel isolated with no one to turn to for help. I always felt like I had to do and learn all of it myself."
Organizational psychologist, Maureen Dollard advocates for a reform known as Psychosocial Safety Climate that restructures the importance of the employees' mental health over productivity goals. Her work has shown evidence around the world for the effectiveness of this approach that fights the actual causes of job strains, depression, anxiety and related health issues.
"Changes on a systemic level are evidently needed, but I often try in both subtle and obvious ways to help the person externalise their turmoil," Himani says. " Most of the time it's someone within the system who becomes helpful. Like a manager or an HR or a colleague who helps them prioritise personal relationships, taking time off for them etc. For this reason, even the training and workshops with the managers should be inclusive of such ideas that discuss the contributors to workplace mental health rather than only swimming on the surface."
To formulate mental distress in the workplace as a capitalist issue, one needs to be able to detect the game being played here. More harmful than the evident public crisis here is the concealment of the term, "public" by the systemic distribution of knowledge and faulty awareness campaigns so that it gets passed off as someone's impediment. Stress hinders productivity but when stress becomes so widespread that it starts uncovering the actual culprits, a new narrative is required to redirect its prevention and pose it as an individual health crisis. As Chris Harman fiercely put in his book, Zombie Capitalism, "the capitalist wants contended workers to exploit in the same way that a farmer wants contented cows."