One of the bravest or stupidest decisions I ever made in my life
was 15 years ago. I had a wonderful job working as a journalist and
section editor for a reputable weekly magazine, a job which I never
thought I would ever have (black people then and even now find few
doors open for them in the print sector)and had struggled for over
many years previously. When I started, the editor was a tough man
but an exceptional nurturer of talent. All of us felt valued by him
even though we were paid little and we felt a fierce loyalty to him
and the magazine. Then there was a change and the people who took
over were the opposite: ruthless, capricious, constantly devaluing
the staff. Women were particularly targeted and one was a brilliant
journalist who was suffering from multiple sclerosis.
I lost weight, couldn’t sleep, lost all my confidence and wept
every morning as I travelled to work. Then my husband left me for a
younger woman and I came close to a real breakdown. My boss used
this extra vulnerability to put me down even more. I was broke, a
lone mother and on the verge of collapse and yet one Monday I knew
I had to leave for the sake of my young son. So I did with
trepidation and an enormous sense of failure and worthlessness. I
only tell the story because I know how many people around the
country will identify with it.
Far too many of us are paying a high price for the economic
dynamism of this country. We work the longest hours in Europe often
in workplaces that have little appreciation of what this costs.
I was at lunch with an American investor the other day, a friend of
George Bush Junior, who said he loved investing in this country
because we were such uncomplaining workers. No wonder so many
Britons are ending up mentally ill because of needless stress at
work. According to researchers, whereas once work-related
disabilities tended to be physical – muscular, skeletal or
cardiovascular – these days it is more likely that people end up
with mental health problems that are barely recognised as “real” in
our society, which just adds insult to injury. This is one of the
abiding legacies of Thatcherism.
Other factors play their part too. We are now living in a world
where there is no job for life, no secure pension, unprecedented
dangers for children and threats of war and violence. The influence
of trades unions has been strangled by capitalist authoritarianism
(and no, I am not a communist or even madly left wing), which means
that the sense of helplessness and hopelessness is growing all the
time. We don’t know what we can do to counter the debilitating
stress we feel at work.
We may be richer than ever before and most of us can hope to live
substantially longer than our forebears but these “improvements”
may be making things harder for the mentally fragile who may blame
themselves for feeling the way they do in these times of plenty and
longevity. Basic joined-up thinking should reveal to us that there
is a link between the terrible high number of children who are now
suffering mental health problems, the high number of suicides among
young adult men and the even higher number of people who have to
take time off work because they simply cannot cope.
The poor who are still with us have their own set of triggers for
depression and other mental conditions. And those who are
economically active find themselves sinking for other reasons. For
the first time, yuppies in the City, with their hideous bonuses and
fast lives, are joining unions because they feel the insecurity of
their glamorous occupations is destroying their sense of well
being. In the public sector where there are multiple problems – low
pay, bad management, unrealistic demands and the terror of being
branded useless by the public and the media – mental distress is
reaching disastrous levels.
Meanwhile, the government and especially the cold taskmasters such
as Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown focus on disability fraud and
cynically put it about that there is something almost unpatriotic
if people cannot work 60 hours a week.
Employers and the government must begin to understand the damage
they are causing to themselves and the workers of this country. You
cannot drive people to madness and expect companies and public
services to function efficiently. Even slave owners came to realise
that in the 19th century.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and