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9 September 2016

For millions with mental health problems, the modern workplace is an insult to body and soul

If you can’t handle the stress of working in a low-pay world, it is always and only your fault. It's time that presumption changed.

By Laurie Penny

Whose fault is it if you can’t cope with the stress of work? The answer used to be simple – it’s yours, and you’re probably a shiftless weakling for even asking the question. But a landmark case in France might soon change public opinion. Following an inquiry into the suicides of more than 30 employees at France Télécom (now Orange) between 2008 and 2009, prosecutors in Paris have recommended that Didier Lombard, a former chief executive of the company, and six other senior managers be put on trial for psychological harassment.

Union officials and prosecutors have suggested that France Télécom’s strategy may have been designed to nudge employees into quitting of their own accord, sparing the company the expense and bad publicity of laying them off: workers were shunted from office to office, forced to work long, impractical hours and subjected to conditions that few employers would risk in a ­nation with relatively easy access to firearms. Instead, facing unemployment in a recession, the employees continued to work and dozens killed themselves.

You’d expect that sort of corporate behaviour in Britain, where the ­political consensus has long been that workers’ rights are as déclassé as other things we had in the 1970s, such as vol-au-vents, paisley flares and a properly funded mental-health system. But this happened in France, where everyone knows that workers get 200 days of holiday a year and offices go on strike if the canteen runs out of crème brûlée. Somehow, it seems that these managers saw little wrong in pushing their employees to the brink of breakdown in the name of profit. That this case may be taken to a criminal court is far more shocking than it should be.

If France Télécom faces criminal charges, the case will be significant whatever the outcome, because it inverts in an instant the moral landscape of work in which most of us have been scrubbing for decades. It has become accepted that a failure to endure whatever arcane horrors your employer throws at you is evidence of personal weakness. They are job creators – a near-mythical status in modern society – whereas you are merely a job doer. If you can’t handle the stress, it is always and only your fault.

Conversely, if you are able to work – even at the cost of your health and happiness – it follows that you must be mentally well. In Britain, paid work is one of the defined “good health” outcomes identified by the Mental Health Taskforce. Conversely, unemployment has been rebranded, according to some studies, as a “psychological disorder” for the purposes of benefit assessment. Those who are out of work, for whatever reason, are considered to be mentally unwell, not because of the constant low-level anxiety that comes from trying to get access to welfare benefits and then live on them, but by definition.

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Yet again, responsibility for work and its effects on the human soul is assigned to the individual. Whatever your boss does or does not do to you is your fault, and it is up to you to cope with it as best you can.

Should employers be responsible for their workers’ mental health? There are health and safety laws, but these were written for an economy where and an age when the most complex hazard you were likely to face was a box-cutter gone haywire. These days, the dangers are far more threatening to our very existence, the wounds of work mental and emotional. Low pay could easily be considered a threat to mental safety, forcing a person, say, to spend 50 hours a week getting shouted at by customers for less money than it takes to cover basic rent and bills.

Employers in the UK have a legal duty to protect their staff from “undue stress”. It is hard to enforce, however, because the law is rarely challenged, except in extreme circumstances. Even in a situation such as the one at France Télécom, with multiple employees taking their own life – and with one of them reportedly stabbing himself in the stomach during a meeting – it is not simple to identify a culprit, a cause. If you lose a leg at work, you’ve got a stump to show to the judge. If work turns you into an anxious, sleepless mess, what are you going to submit as evidence? Your unwashed blankets? Some sad poetry?

There’s more to mental health than mere survival. For every worker pushed over the edge, there are many more living with permanent stress. “Stress” is a convenient euphemism for all manner of conditions that we would feel obliged to do a bit more about if they were called by their proper names: unhappiness, anxiety, panic, breakdown. You’re allowed to say that work is making you stressed. You’re not allowed to say that work is making you unhappy.

When people take their own life, it is not often that one can point to a single, external factor that pushed them over the edge. However, in the case of France Télécom, not unlike the well-publicised suicides at Foxconn in China in 2010, employees left notes blaming the unbearable conditions at work. Workplace suicides are on the rise across the world as work becomes more precarious and badly paid. Economic growth is concentrating in the hands of top earners and ordinary workers pay the price in the form of insecure contracts, low wages and falling living standards, which is a polite way of saying that the things that make life worth living are getting harder to secure even as we all work harder than ever.

Our cultural insistence that paid work is the surest route to well-being and dignity has little basis in fact. For many millions of people, the modern workplace is a blunt insult to both body and soul, but we are invited by our bosses and leaders to agree that exhaustion is a sign of weakness and that despair is a mark of moral deficiency. It should not take a spate of suicides for us to begin to question that logic.

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers