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The NS Interview: Susan Greenfield

“As a woman in science, you are remembered – but also ignored”

How did you find yourself studying the brain?
At school, I thought science was the most boring thing on earth: you'd just stencil conical flasks. Meanwhile, I had an absolutely inspirational Greek teacher. So I came to it late, from the philosophy side, the "big questions" side. What drew me was how everything happens in the brain. It wasn't until I went to Oxford to do philosophy, and had to do it with something, so did psychology, that I veered more towards the science of this logical thing.

Is it difficult, in your field, to be a woman?
Well, I've never been a man, so it's hard to judge. I don't have the perfect control, as we say in science - I don't have someone called Simon who is identical to me in every regard aside from his chromosomes. I think I've had certain problems and certain advantages. If you walk into a room of people, most of whom are men and you are a woman, that is the thing they'll notice. So it does have an impact. You are remembered, but you are also ignored.

Your research has moved from the old brain to the young one. Why?
They're both areas of concern for the 21st century. There's an ageing population, and social structure is going to be very important if you have people living for a long time but increasingly regressing to be like young children. Similarly, the young brain is facing challenges that no other brain in history has faced. The human brain is very sensitive to changes in the environment, and it follows that if the environment is changing, then the brain will change, too.

What is the challenge for young brains?
With the number of hours kids spend in front of a screen, they live a lot of the time in two dimensions rather than three. It's interesting in terms of how you navigate the world.

What effects do you see this having?
There are one or two things that might be desirable - for example, a raised IQ. The skills you use for IQ tests are the same as those for playing a computer game. You don't have huge recourse to economics or history or literature - it's pure mental agility. But there is direct evidence that you listen less if you multitask, and I am concerned about shorter attention span. And abstract concepts: with a medium that is visually based, how do you explain, say, honour to children? Would you go to Google and show them pictures? How do you convey a concept like that through the visual medium alone?

Do you see a link between computer games and the rise in conditions such as autism?
When we play computer games, we are all autistic. We are not picking up on people going red, or wiping their sweaty hands on their jeans. When you read a book, concepts somehow do things in your mind and conjure up an inter­relationship between the characters. It's a sequence with a beginning, middle and end, so things embed into a wider context. If you're playing a game and there are no consequences, that is not a good lesson to learn in life.

Beyond these concerns for the individual, what might be the effect on society?
You would be looking at people who had a very dodgy sense of identity, who were perhaps high in IQ, who lived for the moment, for whom process overrode meaning. You would have less empathy, but you might be happier if you were just living for the thrill of the moment. Perhaps that's what we want. But what I fear is that the more people are like children and in the moment, the more they can be manipulated.

Do you vote?
I used to, yes. In my time I've voted for all parties.

Do you feel political?
I don't feel party political, but I am political. I don't feel any one party has the magic answer, but what I applaud - and certainly when I was younger it was more obvious - is the balance between political parties, the great clash of ideologies, which I think is a very healthy thing.

Was there a plan?
No. The things I planned have never worked out, and the things I didn't . . . I didn't wake up and say, "I want to be a baroness", "I want to be . . ." I've never had a career path or a plan. But I knew I wanted to make the most out of my life and have fun. All my life, I've been - I wouldn't say an outsider, but an individual, and the joy of that is that you can think: "I don't have to be like other people."

Is there anything you regret?
There's that Morecambe and Wise line: "The one thing I want to do before I die is live a long time." My only regret is that life is so short.

Are we all doomed?
Interesting question. It reminds me of that Mark Twain quotation: "No one gets out of here alive." I also think of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Who would want to live for 300 years? I think it's important that we have a finite limit to what we are. But it's easy to say that, when one is not, hopefully, in one's last days. I think you're only doomed if you choose to be. Our fate is in what we make of our lives.

Defining Moments

1950 Born in Hammersmith, west London
1968 Psychology at Oxford, then DPhil in pharmacology. Now a professor there
1994 Becomes the first woman to give the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture
1995 Publishes her theory of consciousness, Journey to the Centres of the Mind
1998 Appointed director, Royal Institution
1999 Becomes honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians
2001 Receives life peerage

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush

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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 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush