The Professional’s Dilemma...
Updated: Sep 1
Settle in for a long one as this is something I haven’t tried before!
It’s been almost two years since I wrote Breaking the Stigma and since I gave my first Breaking the Stigma keynote. A lot has happened since then. Recently, I have been reflecting on the problem of speaking openly about your mental health at work as I begin to outline and draft a new book. This is a summary of one of the core chapters. It’s by no means finished or fully explored, but I’d like to share it as I feel it’s an important step towards helping people speak openly when they’re struggling.
Terms will vary from business to business, but this section will focus on the employees and the employers and their interactions.
Let’s start with our baseline assumption that people (employees) are not comfortable talking about their mental health and general well being. There’s many reasons for this, but most can be condensed down to the following statement:
“Will I be treated fairly, equally and appropriately?”
This is a common want from most people with regards to most things and is completely understandable. I know from personal experience that I feared desperately that admitting to living with depression and anxiety would be the death knell to my career.
Now let’s jump to the employer’s perspective. Employer’s (businesses) typically behave rationally. They base decisions on data, insight and fact, rather than emotion and sentiment. Again, nothing particularly new here, you would expect a business to make it’s decisions based on the real and the tangible, rather than the unknown and intangible.
From an employer’s perspective, they are not receiving any information from their employees about whether they are or are not struggling with their mental health and well being.
Many will try to receive information, with happiness index surveys, well being studies or the like, but because there is an uncertainty in how employers will respond, or how anonymous those surveys real are, employees again are uncertain whether the trust them or not. I can say for certain that during my time in professional practice, the amount of people who didn’t take the equivalent ‘happiness index’ survey seriously was in the significant majority. Most ticked down the middle except the box that said “Are you happy with your salary?” for which they always said “no” unsurprisingly. Employers are left with incomplete information from the internal business.
However, employers know that their people are so incredibly important and that they need to be supported, that they also consider external information in making decisions. There is so much information in the media now and so much science out there, that they know they should be doing something to support their employees.
They don’t know the actual problems though as they’re not told directly. They only know of the symptoms. What ensues is an episode of House. Employers do what they can to treat the symptoms i.e. stress, unhappiness, tiredness, quality of work etc. We end up with employers using what I refer to as ‘white label’ solutions. Don’t get me wrong, doing yoga and being mindful are important. Even listening to shitty little motivational speakers like me can make a difference to your life. I don’t want to take away from all of these things.
Fundamentally the problems are:
people work too much;
people aren’t paid enough for what time they do work; and
there aren’t enough people to do the work.
But because the employers aren’t being told by their people that their people are struggling, they can’t address the actual problem, only they symptoms.
Here’s where it gets interesting!
The employees see these ‘white label’ solutions and are even more disenfranchised than before.
“They don’t really understand the problem do they?”
This leads to the employees being even less likely to share what is actually going on with themselves, or how they’re struggling with their workload or anything like that. Even less information flows from the employees to the employers and so the cycle continues.
A leads to B leads to C leads to A.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic game used to highlight game theory and understand decision making. You can read lots about it online, but to summarise:
Two prisoners (A and B) are in solitary confinement
There is insufficient evidence to convict the pair together, but enough to convict both independently for a more minor charge
Each prisoner is independently offered the opportunity to betray (compete) the other by testifying the other committed the crime, or remain silent (cooperate)
This results in the following set of outcomes:
A and B both betray (compete) each other, each serves 2 years in prison
A and B both remain silent (cooperate), each serves only 1 year in prison
A betrays (competes) B whilst B remains silent (cooperates) or vice versa, sees the A (the betrayer) set free on 0 years and B (the cooperator) server 3 years in prison
This is very similar to our problem within our causality paradox.
We have the employer and the employee.
The employee has two choices; either talk openly about their mental health or not. Speaking openly here is the cooperative option; it involves trusting that the other party (the employer) will not act adversely against you.
The employer has two choices; either treat the causes or treating the symptoms. Treating the causes is the cooperative option in this case. It involves a very real cost and requires trust that the employees are being honest in their conversations with them.
We have this problem repeat in a cycle ad nauseum.
The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma is fascinating and again, helps us identify how to go about ‘Breaking the Stigma’, as I would say!
One of the interesting parts of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that there is only only possible Nash equilibrium (the state/position where it is worse for an individual to deviate from). You can probably guess where it is, or maybe even deduce it if you’re followed the logic this far.
That’s right! It’s exactly where we find ourselves!
The Nash equilibrium is where both employer and employee are competing, or to bring it back to reality, it’s where the employee is not sharing truthful information and the employer is providing only ‘white label’ solutions.
If either player deviates from this, their perceived outcome is worse:
An employee that is struggling fears that they will be ostracised and treated unfairly if they start speaking openly.
An employer fears that by adding headcount, paying more, or even paying for appropriate services i.e. counselling, therapy, courses etc, that they will take on too much cost for little to no benefit.
What our players are missing is that if they both deviate, they could both end up in a better position than where they currently are!
The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma has several strategies on how to play the game. The most successful strategies typically display the following characteristics:
Nice – does not betray/compete before the opponent does
Retaliating – not be a blind optimist, sometimes it’s necessary to betray/compete
Forgiving – even through retaliation, returning to the default position of Nice and cooperating
Non-envious – not striving to score better than the opponent
Bringing it all together
If you put these ideas in the context of the work environment and the employers and employees, you can begin to see how things ‘could’ work if we all played ‘the game’ a little differently.
Start by being nice! Both employer and employee should start from the default position of wanting to provide full and complete information and support to one another. Employees should feel safe and supported should they share how they are feeling and may be struggling. Employers should offer and provide appropriate and adequate support to all employees. Yes, there will be a cost attached to this for employers. You may need to hire more resource. You may need to pay for private counselling, therapy and support for your staff. For those that need it, it will saves lives and make all the difference in the world. For those that don’t, they shouldn’t use it and the cost will be directed towards where it is needed naturally.
Retaliation sounds harsh, but it is something to be aware of in the work environment. Basically, don’t take the piss! In the work environment, everyone needs to be accountable for their actions and that is all this tries to accomplish.
Forgive and return to the default position of Nice. If someone does take the piss, whether employee or employer, you need to be able to forgive them so that it doesn’t become default culture. I speak a lot about the risk of things becoming the default, and this is no different. If an employee abuses the support you are offering, you need to ‘retaliate’, but you also need to forgive so that all other employees can still be supported as they need. If an employer doesn’t support you in your time of need, they you need to call them out on it, but then also give them the opportunity to continue to support you in the future.
Non-envious. No one, employee or employer should hold a bias one way or another. Employees need the employer for a job and employers need employees to do the work. It’s a symbiotic relationship and neither should be trying to score more. I feel this is particularly important as we look at the history of the firm and the culture within. It’s easy to say that “We didn’t have this in my day, therefore they don’t need it now.” That’s envy right there. If you want to build a inclusive and supportive culture, you must let go of the past and look to building a better equilibrium for all; now and in the future.
Hopefully you will have found this interesting and insightful. I have no idea if people have covered this before elsewhere, whether it’s new or whether it’s just the way my little brain links things together.
If you feel I’ve missed anything in this discussion I would love to hear from you. This is something I’ve been musing on and it makes sense to me, but it may be missing some things. I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions!
just another guy