Apples, elephants and roosters

April 12, 2012 by
Filed under: Social brain 


The other day I had coffee with Andy Gibson, founder of Mindapples, an organisation which – among other things – aims to give people the information and advice they need to maintain good mental health. As well as being a very active Fellow of the RSA, Andy is a great guy; energetic, ambitious, thoughtful and totally driven by the desire to help people have better lives. I was impressed by the way he combines a big vision with very practical ideas and interventions.

Having just the previous day chaired Jonathan Haidt we got on to elephants and riders. If it is the elephant of instinct which governs our emotions, how can talking to the rider of conscious thought make an impact? While recognising that every person has their own mind apples (the mental equivalent of five a day) there are some proven methods which are fairly easy to enact and which are shown to have an impact on our underlying sense of well-being. For example, regularly writing a list of the things which are good in our lives really does seem to have an effect on our overall positivity.

But what about the jungle; the paths of social norms, pressures and incentives which drive the elephant to take a particular course? How possible is it, I asked, to improve the mental health of employees if an organisation’s working practices tend to make people more anxious and alienated.

There is an echo here of the central argument of the Richard Sennett’ book The Corrosion of Character. The modern white collar workplace with its emphasis on employee flexibility, team working and mission may seem to provide an environment which is more conducive to well-being than the factory floor, but the loyalty expected of employees is not reciprocated by footloose firms driven by the interests of anonymous investors. Like much of Sennett’s work, aspect of the argument can be opaque and the evidence far from convincing, but many people recognise the description of workplaces where employees are supposed to show the responsibilities of committed corporate citizens but are in fact mere items of dispensable human capital. If I recall correctly, Sennett cites a study of poorly paid air stewards showing higher levels of depression and anxiety after they were told to project more warmth to passengers.

For organisations to adopt an holistic approach to mental health they may have to be willing to examine their business model. If the demands of competition or customer care (either because it is disrespectful or too respectful) are inimical to employee resilience or self-respect it may be better not even to try to improve well-being. And if an organisation’s business model has to change it might have implications for customers. I worry that the signs you see in public buildings and on public transport asking people not to abuse or assault staff reinforce a rather negative set of behavioural expectations, but I guess this is the idea I am getting at.

Fortunately, just yesterday, I saw a brilliant example of one small business  which has taken the brave step of changing the way it does business in order to assert the right of workers to be treated with respect. If the lead of Little Red Rooster in Norwich was to be followed so that it became socially unacceptable to place a face to face order while on a mobile phone, it would not only be good for the mental health of the staff, I suspect it would be a mind apple for the customers too.

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