Like so many of us during the last few months, I have grown closer and closer to my Netflix and Prime Video accounts. It is filling a huge hole left by the absence of live sport and, alongside great writing, is providing me with an escape route out of the worry and distress of coronavirus and its ugly accompanying lowdown. It is transporting me to a different time and place. To a different world.
I have binged on great TV series, like Looming Tower, and even greater films, like The Big Short. I have also rewatched some of my all-time favourite programmes and films, including Spotlight, the story of the extraordinary investigative work done by a team at The Boston Globe to expose child sexual abuse by catholic priests in Boston. There’s a moment in that film when one of the reporters turns to another and says: “It may take a village to raise a child but it also takes a village to abuse one”. His powerful point was that there are always people who know; always people who look away; always people who turn the other cheek; always people who could and should speak out and stop awful things happening. Always others involved.
My twenty-plus years’ experience of work and workplaces in the UK and around the world reinforces that view when it comes to workplace culture and the impact that it can have on mental health and wellbeing. It is rarely, if ever, the fault of one colleague, rogue manager, CEO, board member or leader who creates or perpetuates a toxic working culture. It is rarely, if ever, one incident that pushes a colleague into a place where they no longer want to go to work. It is rarely, if ever, one person that makes a workplace uncomfortable or unhappy. It takes more. It takes a village.
From small acorns grow big trees. From one mean-spirited, nasty, passive aggressive or bullying comment or email at work, grows the cancer of corrosive corporate cultures. Those of us who work or have worked in all types of organisations in all sectors of the economy; of all shapes and sizes; in all roles; at all levels, will I am sure recognise when they see workplace behaviours they know are wrong. Behaviours that make them feel uncomfortable, aimed at them or others. Yet, how often do we call it out? How often do we feel we can, without feeling that we ourselves will become the next victim?
How often too do we really think about the impact that this behaviour – whether a micro-aggression or something more obvious and tangible – can have on others? How often do we look beyond the incident in front of us and think about how it will make the person on the receiving end feel? How often do we look at our own behaviour at work and reflect on its impact – intended or otherwise? How often does this behaviour contribute to someone feeling low, down, anxious, upset, nervous or distressed? How often does it damage their mental health?
There is a danger that we do what many people do when it comes to mental health more generally and say things like “just ignore it” or “try not to let it bother you” or treat it “like water off a duck’s back”. If I had a pound for every time someone – with good intentions – over the last five years or so have offered me that advice – some of it from my closest friends and family – as a way of trying to help me as I work through my breakdown and depression, I would have been able to invest in ‘the big short’. It was always done with good intentions – with kindness and love. But actions speak louder than words.
Standing up to poor behaviour in the workplace may be uncomfortable at first but it can stop it in its tracks. A supportive email to a colleague who is upset; a kind word on the phone; a text message to check in and show you care; a follow up with those who have caused the upset (perhaps without intention or malice) to provide feedback and gently, constructively call it out can make such a big difference. It does make a difference. It can help stop things getting more serious and impacting on a colleagues’ health and wellbeing. I can vouch for that.
It only takes one email. One comment. One blind eye turned. It also takes it toil. If left unchecked it can ruin careers. It can ruin lives. And yet it can be stopped but it takes a village to stop it.