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Don’t blubber, it’s biology

Everyone should watch a whale being dissected – it teaches us about life.

I am standing in the back of a large lorry, my feet submerged in a pool of blood, water and oil. The truck's container is open to a grey Welsh sky, but with high-sided walls to keep the blood and us hidden from view. I shout instructions to Nick, my PhD student, over the wind and rain: "Just climb on to its back and start cutting!" He looks doubtful. Our task lies stinking before us - a nine-metre whale corpse freshly pulled from the Bristol Channel.

Before the concept of "health and safety" was invented, a whale stranding was an important public event. Edward II decreed that whales were the "fishes royal" and that stranded carcasses belonged to the Crown - legislation that still exists today. The carcasses were valuable, and often a popular tourist attraction. The whale might be brought into town squares for the public to see, poke, smell and eat. Whales inspired awe, fascination and greed. They still do, but the fascination is held at bay by poorly informed council workers tasked with the disposal job of their life; and the greed is in the prices quoted by the contractors asked to get rid of the body. A recent sperm whale disposal in Humberside cost the taxpayer over £20,000.

I have been studying what happens to whales when they die a natural death and sink to the sea floor. This has not been easy. Although whales are still relatively numerous, the problem is finding the remains of dead ones. We have used a different tactic - towing a dead stranded whale out to sea, sinking it and returning at a later date to see what has happened.

Some of our findings have been surprising. The first is that the gigantic remains may sit on the seabed for a long time: certainly over five years, and in extreme cases hundreds. The bones form an oil-rich reef that can support several hundred species of specialist scavenging organisms. Our most remarkable discovery has been an entirely new group of worms that live only on whalebones; we've named them Osedax, from the Latin for bone-eating. It appears that these animals evolved simultaneously to whales, some 50 million years ago. We know they are related to the giant worms that live in the chemical-rich fluids of underwater volcanoes, but not how they made the leap to inhabiting whale skeletons. New clues to the origins of deep-sea biodiversity are emerging from these studies.

Identity crisis

As Nick and I start our gruesome task, I feel depressed and powerless. As there is a contractor from an incineration plant waiting to take the whale away, we have decided to remove as many bones as we can fit in our car; we will sink these in deep open sea as part of a future experiment. We do not have the means to arrange for the entire animal to be sunk, or to transport the carcass to the museum. For a wild moment, I think of bringing it back and parking it in the garden at the Natural History Museum where I work. Everybody should have a chance to see it, walk on its back, watch a dissection. That is biology and it can't be done on the internet or with plastic casts.

Even in the Welsh storm, the local boys working on the dockside shout over to us. "Is it a boy or a girl?" I find the penis. "A boy!" I shout. "But not very well endowed!" They laugh, their interest in marine biology awakened.

This is the fourth time I have chopped up a whale. The first was a sperm whale in Hull, the second a minke whale in Kent, the third a fin whale in Sussex. Surprisingly, nobody has been able confidently to identify this one. It looks like a fin or minke to me. I take pictures of various bits and email them from my phone to experts. "Probably a minke," they reply. I do not like the "probably". The first thing a biologist should do is identify an animal correctly. Our data will be useless without a common taxonomic reference. So we take a slice of the least smelly meat for testing. It occurs to me that this huge whale - a local media sensation - is about to be incinerated before anyone knows what it is. A new species? It is not impossible. New species have been determined in recent years through DNA techniques. What data could we be losing here by burning this animal before properly studying it?

Nick climbs carefully on to the back of the whale. The furrows of its belly make convenient handholds and toeholds, but the animal wobbles like a giant jelly as he scrambles up. "Don't worry, the skin is quite tough - you won't fall in," I shout encouragingly, wondering if this is really true. "Have a go at that flipper first, just to warm up." Cutting up a whale is surprisingly easy. The animal has a thick layer of fat - the blubber - which is easily sliced. Removing the bones is less simple, as you need to know where the joints are, like when carving a roast. The flipper is composed of the same bones as our arms - humerus, radius, ulna and a ball-and-socket joint. Nick feels for this with his knife and soon we are able to free it. Removed from the whale, the flipper is enormous, the ball joint itself the size of a football. It slides down the side of the whale, landing with a huge splash in a pool of blood. We whoop with delight.

Outside the lorry, the local news crew is interviewing one of the disposal team: a rescue company more used to dealing with motorway pile-ups. "We had to remove a circus elephant once, but this is our first whale," he enthuses. The reporter, soaked in a mist of whale blood and rainwater, looks to me for a story. "Do you think this is the best way to dispose of it?" he leads. I explain that it is ridiculous to spend thousands removing a dead whale from the sea to dispose of it on land. But I hesitate to criticise the council; almost certainly the staff have no previous experience and get limited guidelines on what to do. It could be argued that as a rep­resentative of the Natural History Museum, which is given first rights to "fishes royal" by the Crown, I should treat it as my job to claim the specimen for the national collection. But my only resources are an enthusiastic PhD student, a Honda Civic and some plastic bags.

Ocean icon

Whales are the poster children for all that is mysterious and unknown about the open sea. To a seaman on the deck of a 1960s Southern Ocean whaler, they were floating barges of oil awaiting harvest. To an environmental activist, they are the icons of a natural world, the animal highest in the pecking order of protection.

These extreme views arise through ignorance of science and bias in observation. While international committees meet yearly to make supposedly informed decisions about whale conservation, this whale sits unidentified on a truck in Cardiff, destined, ironically, for use as biofuel at a local incineration plant.

As we return to the museum with our samples, I rant to Nick about the treatment of these whale remains and our poor knowledge of the oceans. Hiding the animal from view, limiting access and spending thousands incinerating it is no progress for marine science. I yearn for the days when a whale would be brought to town.

Adrian Glover is a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London

Splash of the titans

The fin whale is the second-largest living animal. Its distinctive long, slim body can reach 27 metres in length and 70,000 kilograms in weight, purely on a diet of krill, small schooling fish, squid and crustaceans filtered from the water using baleen plates.

Gregarious creatures, fin whales have been spotted in groups of 300 when migrating and are favourites of National Geographic, as they can leap completely out of the water. They are highly endangered and their numbers have declined during the 20th century - an estimated 750,000 were killed - leaving fewer than 3,000 in the oceans today.

Minke whales are one of the smaller baleen species, reaching nine metres at maturity. They can usually be identified by a white band on each flipper. Minkes were increasingly targeted by hunters as larger species became scarce by the 1970s. There has been a moratorium on hunting since 1986, but Iceland, Japan, Norway and South Korea still kill significant numbers.

After the gargantuan blue, the sperm whale is perhaps the most famous, due to its role as Ahab's nemesis in Melville's Moby-Dick. The largest predators in the world, bulls (males) can grow up to 20 metres long and weigh 57,000 kilograms by feeding on deep-sea cephalopods such as the colossal squid. Though officially seen as vulnerable, the species is thought to be in little danger of extinction: scientists estimate that hundreds of thousands are still living worldwide.

Stephen Morris

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.


Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”

Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London