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Understanding the effect of mental illness at work

It’s never been more important.

The full impact of mental illness is something societies are becoming increasingly aware of, and there’s growing recognition of the effect that it can have on workplaces and economic productivity.

Mental health issues can significantly impact on a person’s quality of life, and recent figures suggest that almost half of the Australian population has experienced a mental disorder at some point in their lifetime.

Dr Rob Macklin, a senior lecturer in management and business ethics at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, explains that we must take a broader perspective of the factors that cause mental illness in the workplace, beyond simply pathologising the problem as we have in past decades.  

“A more sociological understanding of mental suffering is needed, that investigates the role that broader economic and social imperatives and threats have on people’s well-being at work,” said Dr Macklin, whose expertise includes mental illness in the workplace, business ethics, and social suffering in organisations.

Rather than typical approaches to mental illness, Dr Macklin looks at the way businesses, institutions, organisations, and societies are set up – usually with large numbers of people working communally – and how this can cause stress, anxiety, and other problems for individuals.

Traditionally, mental health problems such as chronic anxiety or depression have been pathologised as illnesses, based on the idea that patients have some inherent weakness or disorder.

But in an upcoming paper that Dr Macklin is co-authoring, he argues that the role of organisations  in causing these problems often gets downplayed.    

“From my perspective, an important reorientation that could have a positive effect is to stop focusing so heavily on individual pathology and assuming that people who are suffering from anxiety and depression are necessarily ill,” he said. 

They might in fact be mentally healthy people who are responding very sanely in the face of organisational systems, societal arrangement, and social values that are counter to human flourishing.

"We need organisational and social change, not just drugs for overstressed and struggling individuals.”

The importance placed on numerical targets that employees have to meet, as opposed to broader qualitative targets, is just one example of the kinds of conditions that can cause stress in the workplace today.

These kinds of methods of measuring success can put individuals under intense pressure, creating an enormous amount of stress and anxiety, Dr Macklin explains, as they must continuously strive for difficult targets.

"This is ethically questionable, especially when you consider that the structures of work could be creating large numbers of depressed and anxious people who are failing to flourish," said Dr Macklin.

“Mental illness and social suffering at work profoundly undermine individual and societal flourishing,” he said.

Not only do they cause existential, emotional, and physical pain, they also undermine people’s freedoms and life chances, as well as the sustainability of organisations and communities.

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