The modern Russian paradox

Ironies behind the elite’s confused thinking

Russia is no longer a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Winston Churchill would say. Even its most incomprehensible zigzags have a certain logic. One needs not only patience, but a sense of irony to understand what lies behind Russia's paradoxes.

Using elections to undermine democracy

These parliamentary elections aren't an election at all, but a referendum on confidence in the outgoing president. The authorities openly admit that manifestos and policies have no meaning at all and Russians have only to say "Yes" or "No" to Putin ( better "Yes"), as he heads the party list of the Kremlin's United Russia. At the same time, Putin has refused to join United Russia and declared that his party lacks ideology and attracts "all kinds of crooks". It would be hard to find a more effective way to discredit the parliament and multiparty system.

President Putin against the presidency

Putin and his loyalists are trying desperately to find a formula that would allow him to leave and stay. By getting support for a party that he does not intend to join, he hopes to get extra leverage over the presidential elections to be held in March 2008. Thereby he would influence the new presidency, which he is not allowed to stand for. The idea is to raise him above society as the highest moral authority, a mix of Deng Xiaoping and Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For this to happen, the next president would have to be a weakling ready to implement Putin's agenda. There is, however, no tradition of splitting power.

The uncertainty of certainty

In its search for certainty, the elite has cracked down on pluralism and competition. The result is that the certainties are even less fixed. Neither Putin nor Russia itself can know what will happen after March 2008. The horizon stops after the presidential elections. Nobody knows what will happen to all the reforms suspended or reversed during Putin's time. If he manufactures a way of staying in the Kremlin, he will only increase the uncertainty because he will become a hostage of his subordinates. At the same time, "Putin Forever" would mean a return to the Soviet tradition that ended in the USSR's ignominious collapse. He understands the threat, but he apparently fears even more what may happen if he vacates the driver's seat.

This unstable stability

The ruling team has closed Boris Yeltsin's chapter of chaos and convulsions. On the surface, Putin's Russia is stable. But the drivers of this stability are the oil price, Putin's approval ratings and a lack of alternatives. This leaves the stability fragile. A plunge in oil prices in 1986 triggered the collapse of the USSR. When it happened again in 1998, it shattered the economy. Putin's high personal ratings are linked specifically to the energy boom; they are not transferable to a new leader. The more the elite seeks to strengthen stability by centralising power, the more it undermines it. Removing opportunities for expressing views and dissent within official institutions forces the opposition on to the streets. Finally, the infighting among the ruling class for property and influence, and the bitter rivalry among the security services, could any moment bring down this house of cards.

Russia confronts the west

Russia was not expected to be back. It was believed to be a country in terminal decline and/or a junior partner of the west. Revisionist Russia demanding to play on its terms became quite an unpleasant surprise for the world. Does that mean that Russia is ready for confrontation with the west? Not at all.

The elite would like to have it both ways: on the one hand, to be part of the west and personally integrated into it, with its homes, schools and bank accounts; on the other, to isolate society back home from western influence. The icon for the elite - even if it does not admit it - is Roman Abramovich, governor of Chukotka and owner of Chelsea, commuting as he does between Moscow and London. The goal of the ruling class is to enjoy western standards of life. At the same time it uses anti-western rhetoric to create a siege mentality in Russia and close it off from outside influences, because this elite does not know how to rule an open society.

Cold War rhetoric is one thing, but the elite fears a return of the Cold War itself. There is one problem, however, with this attempt to ski in opposite directions (to choose an increasingly popular pastime). The elite could lose control over developments, and once the genie of nationalism is let out of the bottle it is difficult to put back.

The success of failure

There are two laws that govern the post-communist reality. One is the law of unintended consequences. Here is one final example of how this law works: the Kremlin's bullish attempts to make Gazprom the only gas supplier to Europe only forced the EU finally to start working on a common energy strategy.

Another law is the law of failure. When a liberal opposition is weak and not ready to take power, society may have to head in a wrong direction before recognising that it leads to a dead end. Only after hitting the wall does it start looking for another way out of its predicament. A leader has to fail spectacularly to demonstrate that the trajectory taken was wrong. Mikhail Gorbachev's failure to reform the USSR in the 1980s proved that it cannot be reformed. Yeltsin's attempt to create capitalism with the help of oligarchs in the 1990s proved that this way was wrong, too.

Putin's destiny may be to confirm that Russia cannot be modernised from above. Russia will need his failure to start looking for a democratic government and build a state that will accept constraints. This remains a long way off, and in the meantime Russians will pay a price for getting rid of the paradoxes that bedevil their country.

Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

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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 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future