Pushing people beyond their limits

Chris Blackhurst is the former chief editor of the Independent . He has written a piece for the paper this week that I think goes to the very core of many of the problems in the neoliberal society we live in today.

He starts by recounting the cycle of bullying he endured at school, whereby the new intake are ‘initiated’ by the older boys, but go on to inflict the same thing on subsequent little kids when they become the big boys. Those that took it ‘on the chin’ would be considered to have passed through the initiation. Those that made a fuss (snivelling or snitching) would be targeted indefinitely. Personally, I was streetwise enough to know how it worked, but hated seeing the nastier bullies making the lives of the weak and meek a misery. I was fortunate enough to have additional tools in my armoury. I was big, strong and athletic. I took great pleasure in embarrassing the bullies to the fullest extent I could in any sporting activity. Some reacted badly to this, and on a couple occasions they started fights that I finished.

I guess this is was all the beginning of my socialist principles and lifelong tendency to stand up for the weak and the meek and to take on the bully boys. Not that I have always come out on top. I endured a couple of sound kickings in my formative years, and have succumbed in the fight a couple of times in my adult life, leading to a couple of meltdowns. Chris Blackhurst’s article stresses just how endemic the culture of relentless pressure has become. Pressure becomes stress. Stress becomes intolerable. The intolerable leads to calamity.

Blackhurst was prompted to write after the well-publicised cases of Army reservists being pushed beyond their limits on a hot day in the Brecon Beacons, and also the not-uncommon case of a Goldman Sachs banker being driven beyond his limits. In both cases we see needless deaths on the one hand and employers claiming they take their employees welfare seriously on the other. In both cases, there have been plenty of similar incidents both before and since. Talk to people within the organisations, however, and you soon get to the truth of the prevalent attitudes. You see, these things just happen. Some people simply aren’t cut out for the job. If the couldn’t stand the heat ……. etc.

It isn’t just the Army and the bankers of course. I expect that nearly all of us can relate to these attitudes in most of our workplaces to some extent. Increasingly so, no doubt in these ever-more austere times. I recognise it all too readily in the sector I work in. It is major reason why I have not been fit to work at all for the last 4 months. An ONS report states that 15.2 million working days a year were lost to stress or depression in Great Britain last year. That is 10 times the number lost to migraines and headaches. Research also suggests that this is little more than the tip of an iceberg as 71% of people surveyed report that they would worry about telling an employer if they had a mental health condition, for fear of getting a negative response.

I have not shrunk away from being upfront with my employer about it. They are very good at presenting a caring front. They put out regular ‘health and well-being’ emails and this has included ones about mental health with some ‘Top Tips’. Job done as far as their ‘Investors in People’ tick box sheet is concerned. When I offered information during ‘Mental Health Week’ about the mindfulness programme I had undertaken, my email was not even acknowledged. Now that I am trying to engage with them about a phased return to work, I am getting no response at all. While I have been off work (a period following a clumsily handled forced redundancy process) I have received reports of colleagues that survived the cut being pressured my completely unrealistic, un-negotiated targets for roles they were not even initially employed to do. Several have apparently quit, others have been told ‘perform or you will be sacked’.

Many in my position would probably have felt the financial pressure (just 2 weeks on full pay and two weeks on half pay in a rolling year) to return to work too soon, with potentially dire consequences to their well-being. I am nervous about what I am returning to. With genuinely caring and sympathetic employers I could possibly have been back in work by now (although had that been the case, I may have avoided my meltdown completely).

The thing that bothers me most about these situations is that so many managers in these organisations are so ready to serve these corporate ‘do or be damned’ mentalities. They are just like the basically decent kids that feel it is just the way of the world that they mete out the bullying. It is the only way they can avoid the bullying from above them. And so it goes on. Who is going to say ‘stop’? Who is going to realise that it’s not always acceptable to do to others as was done to us.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 11.19.07Despite their emasculation since Thatcher’s time, trade unions still represent the best protection we have from workplace bullying. Find the best one for you here:  UNION FINDER

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