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SiSU Wellness

Sick as a parrot

Last Updated: 15 January 2019








Sick as a parrot

Stress, anxiety and depression have become the major cause of long-term sickness absence and the second most common cause of short- term sickness absence in the UK[1].

In 2007 The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health estimated that work related mental health problems cost the UK economy £26 billion per year due to absenteeism, lost productivity, presenteeism and staff turnover[2]. It is estimated that between 15% and 20% of the UK’s 29 million working population are struggling with a work related mental health issue[3]. But these figures only tell part of the story and I want to get behind the headline grabbing statistics and the preoccupation in many organisations with stress and absence to examine the meaning of this phenomenon.


There can be no doubt that the nature of work and people’s relationship with their work has changed significantly over the past 20 years. Globalisation, international competition and advances in technology and communications have restructured the nature of organisational life such that continuous and disruptive change is the norm in most large organisations. Organisations are flatter, leaner and meaner and the current economic climate has further added to the uncertainty and insecurity experienced by employees. The impact of this paradigm shift is evident in the intensification of work. There are fewer people doing more work and doing it more intensely[4]. Quicker and faster has become the norm for survival in a competitive market place.


Paid work takes up a large proportion of our physical, mental and emotional space. The boundary between work and home has become fluid due to advances in communication technology that makes work no longer dependant on time and place in a 24/7 society. Roles and work structure have become more flexible, and, in most organisations, subject to continuous change.


It is asserted by some management theorists that all this movement and change is great for organisational success and survival. However, it is not so great for the human heart and employee health.


“It seems that in many organizations the old framework of organizational life and work is vanishing, but little has been built to replace it. Consequently, for employees it is increasingly difficult to comprehend andmanage their work as they see the disappearing boundaries and outdated priorities without clear vision of what will be in the future.”

(Docherty, Forslin, Shani and Kira 2002)[5]

This goes to the heart of the problem. A new organisational order, what Cooper and Dartington (2004)[6] have called the ‘vanishing organisation’ has reified employees into mere commodities for human capital management. Employees have become objectified as another asset to be deployed and managed in the pursuit of profitability and efficiency. Such organisations no longer act as safe containers for work and social interaction. The social bonds and attachments that are necessary for productive and meaningful work have become transitory and contingent. The ‘post-modern employee’ must be capable of living in what Bauman (1995)[7] calls a “state of perpetual new beginning and fresh start.” The uncertainty and insecurity of continuous change and the instrumental and contingent relationships that increasingly form the basis of modern organisational life undermine the very social attachment that creates meaning in the workplace. It is my contention that the current work related mental health problems and other related phenomena such as employee disengagement are part of an unconscious social response to the loss of attachment and meaning in the workplace. The speed and pace of change, and the shift in the organisational paradigm that is supposedly good for business, is removing the psychological containment that make work structures sustaining for employees. Instead employees are being asked to buy into the uncertainty and conditionality of relationships, tasks and structure. Is it therefore surprising that stress, anxiety and depression are so ubiquitous as employees’ energy and vitality are being consumed whilst opportunities for growth, development and recovery are increasingly rare? In a recently published book on depression that sets out to challenge contemporary medical ideas about depression Anne Cvetkovich says:

“depression can be seen a category that manages and medicalises the feeling associated with keeping up with the corporate culture and the market economy or with being completely neglected by it” [8]

The imbalance that has grown between the employees and their work and workplaces leads to tiredness, sadness and an ‘erosion in values, dignity, spirit and will – an erosion of the human soul (Maslach and Leiter 1997)[9]

The erosion of the human soul is not good for employee health or business but this malaise shows no sign of abating without some radical intervention.



Written by Dr. Noel Duncan


[1] Absence Management Survey Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development 2012
[2] Mental Health at Work: Developing the business case. The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health Policy Paper Number 8 2007
[3] Mental Health at Work: Developing the business case. The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health Policy Paper Number 8 2007
[4] Creating Sustainable Work Systems; Edited Jan Forslin, Peter Docherty and AB Shani  2002 Routledge
[5] Emerging Work Systems. From intensive to sustainable; Jan Forslin, Peter Docherty and AB Shani , Maria Kiri in Creating Sustainable Work Systems Edited Jan Forslin, Peter Docherty and AB Shani  2002 Routledge
[6] Cooper, A. and Dartington T. (2004) The vanishing organization: organizational containment in a networked world. In: Huffington, C. and Armstrong, D. (eds.) Working below thesurface: the emotional life of contemporary organizations. London: Karnac, pp. 127–50.
[7] Life in Fragments: Essays in Post Modern Morality; Zygmunt Bauman 1995
[8] Depression, A Public Feeling: Anne Cvetkovich. Duke University Press 2012
[9] The Truth about Burnout: How organisations cause personal stress and what to do about it. Maslach C and Leitter M. P. (1997) Josey-Bass


Mental health
Work-life balance
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