If awareness if all you can offer, I don’t want it

The office has a ping-pong table, a source of such pride that it has earned its own bullet point in the ‘Company Benefits’ section of job advertisements.


It follows demands that each candidate ‘thrive under pressure,’ and ‘be willing to do what it takes to get the job done,’ which might mean working half an hour late on an occasional Thursday, but probably means pushing yourself to burnout whilst eating ready meals at your desk in the name of revenue targets. It almost certainly means deadlines and demands stacked like hurdles on a never-ending racetrack, stretching punishingly into the horizon to prevent your ever thinking you might have achieved enough to warrant a moment of respite. The ping-pong table is a plaster for toxic workplace culture: give them a sliver of controlled fun and perhaps they’ll forget what a breakdown looks like.


This past week was #mentalhealthawarenessweek. On weeks like these, the company runs at least one workshop with a benign title like,Managing Stress or How to Deal With Anxiety. It’s a tokenistic effort, delivered by somebody in the ‘people team’ who gushes about mindfulness and overuses the phrase, “the research says”. One of her slides is a recommendation for a £25 gratitude journal with a garish floral cover, which she claims, “really gave me perspective.”


At the end, she lowers her tone in earnest and encourages everyone to seek support in work should they ever feel like they’re struggling. The room is a sea of line managers’ heads nodding with mock sincerity, whilst beneath their collars sweat beads in unison at the thought of having to provide support that can’t be drunk or snorted. After work, they joke about cut wrists over craft beers, eyes furtively assessing which of the group might be weak enough to succumb to crazy.


Because, one day, somebody in the office will have the audacity to find themselves in a state of mental ill-health. People will begin to speak their name in tones of hushed pity, puffing out their chests in a show of confident empathy instilled by the hour-long mental health awareness course they took one lunchtime. They know this poor bastard is probably feeling quite low, or quite afraid, or perhaps even both (naturally, these courses only ever cover depression and anxiety; nobody has found a way of explaining psychosis that James in finance will understand). Everybody feels very secure in their role as ‘sympathetic observer’, providing the person in question doesn’t try to actually talk about it. This would be a wildly selfish act. Let people wear their virtue like a badge of honour. Don’t bring the whole farce crumbling down by peering beneath the surface.


This person might be able to work, in which case they are lauded as ‘brave’ and ‘a real team player’. They will be wheeled out as a shining example should anyone else ever dare to be mentally unwell, and used as weaponised comparison against any future expectations of compassion. “Becky had a really bad patch last year,” they will say, “but she managed it really well and still came into work every day,” as though mental illness is another thing to which you can apply ruthless efficiency if only you try hard enough. Nobody cares whether Becky was swigging vodka in the loos between conference calls or spending every minute outside of work hiding in bed with the curtains closed. People will turn a blind eye to trembling hands or glazed expressions; healthy figures are worth more than healthy employees.


After the admission of illness — for it always has the weight of an admission, never a statement of fact — a simpering somebody will use the phrase, “if there’s anything I can do…” It has the dual quality of sounding so full of good intentions yet being so empty, a veritable cavern of words over action. Allowances may be requested in the form of time spent working from home, flexible hours, or reduced responsibilities, and these might even be granted — but only to the point at which it becomes in any way detrimental to, or effortful for, the business. Then, the person will be encouraged into a dingy room before somebody from HR, and lectured in a soft voice about “their future at this company.” That awful term ‘team player’ will make an appearance, thrown around in accusatory tones as though a sharp prod at their already-raw guilt will jolt them into wellness.


If this person dares to take time away from work, they will not be permitted the luxury of recuperation. They will be bombarded with messages almost every day, a recurring guilt trip laid on thick. “We’re so busy,” someone will say in a voice that manages to be both needy and demanding, “when do you think you’ll be ready to come back?” This person may have spent the morning contemplating the relative merits of sustaining versus ending their own life, but their line manager once heard that ‘mental illness is like a broken leg,’ so it seems a reasonable question to ask.


Perhaps awareness truly is scarce enough for somebody to believe that this might have anything but a detrimental effect on the recipient’s mental health. Or perhaps all of these actions lead to a particularly sinister conclusion: they simply don’t care. When your value as a human being is tied up in your tangible output, regard for your feelings stretches only as far as you are able to demonstrate usefulness. You are simultaneously a beneficial resource and entirely replaceable, creating a constant struggle of deciding how much of yourself to give.


This is all to say: I don’t think awareness is the problem, or the solution. It isn’t enough to be aware of mental illness. Being aware that mental health issues exist doesn’t eliminate discrimination, or prevent ignorance, or award you an upgraded sense of compassion. The universal awareness that many of us need isn’t that our illnesses exist: it’s that many of the systems we live in, including our workplaces, operate in a way that is often detrimental to our mental health. We need those who control the systems to swallow that fact whole, and for it to sit so uncomfortably in their throats that they feel compelled to take action. Awareness doesn’t mean a thing without empathy and understanding — two things woefully deficient from the culture of our modern workplace.


If all a workplace can offer is another hackneyed diatribe on mental health awareness, without the processes or the inclination to provide much-needed support to its employees, then they’re failing. I’m tired of witnessing performative understanding that collapses under a breeze of scrutiny. A meaningless offer to lend an ear is not equivalent to providing appropriate and individual consideration to your employees. Awareness sessions are not a failsafe guarantee of managerial compassion.


A fucking ping-pong table is not a suitable alternative to a work/life balance.


Let’s do better.

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