What happens when you have the wrong default settings for raising boys, mental health, gender equality and climate at work

I’ve got two sons, last night my wife and I were lamenting the relationship troubles they are having.

‘I thought boys were supposed to be easier than girls.’ I joked. My wife didn’t laugh because she’s wiser than me. Boys’ relationships aren’t something our culture and society values. Very little cultural content is given over to their relationships. As a result, we’re programmed at a default level to not pay as much attention to our boys’ relationships.  

What if childhood relationships, whether they are boys or girls, are far more complicated than we give it credit for? If we don’t expect boys to have problems with relationships, we never ask them about it. When there is an issue, we fall back on ‘it’s OK, boys will be boys, they’ll get over it.’ Or some other trite, unhealthy trope. When boys become men, they are more likely than women to abuse substances and people, to commit crime and suicide and suffer from loneliness.

I’m beginning to think that, just as we massively underestimate what it takes to raise well-adjusted boys, we are massively underestimating what it takes to make mentally healthy workplaces.

‘The Trillion Dollar Taboo: why it’s time to stop ignoring mental health at work’ was the headline of a long piece in the FT this weekend. It tells stories of rapid mental health deterioration that, if we’re being honest, we can all relate to. These stories show you just how far and fast that slippery slope can go, in some cases to suicide. The article explores what’s being done by some firms and just how widespread the problem is.

Mental health has rocketed up agendas. It’s very much on trend and is here to stay, thankfully.

But I can’t shake a feeling of deja vu. It was October 2006 when Lord Stern, ex-World Bank Chief Economist released the Stern Report on climate change. He landed similarly eye-popping figures. By 2050 the markets for low-carbon tech could be $500bn, shifting to a low carbon path could add $2.5 trillion to the world economy. It was greeted with applause, businesses clamoured to make pledges, commit budgets and take action. All this made little more than a scratch, let alone a dent in carbon emissions. 13 later, we find ourselves with 12 years to avert runaway, catastrophic climate change.

What if, with mental health, like climate change, we are wildly underestimating what’s required to deal with the problem?

What if the default settings for the world of work we’ve built over the last few decades are way above what’s realistic for human beings?

If we want to build successful organisations for the long term, ones that leave positive legacies that also deliver commercial success, we must accept that in the short term, change will not be easy. It never is – preserving the status quo is far easier – and often cheaper. Faced with painful change, the can often gets kicked down the road for the next CEO, board or SMT to deal with because there’s more pressing short-term business problems to deal with.

I would love to say we can have our cake and eat it, that we can create mentally healthy, climate positive workplaces without too much painful change, but I don’t think we can. The naively optimistic approach we’ve taken over the last few decades to our collective challenges doesn’t work.

It’s not got us far enough on the climate agenda. It’s not got us far enough on gender equality either, which is another similar problem because the status quo that everyone subscribes to is clearly wrong, morally and economically. If the approaches we’ve tried to these problems, which boil down to voluntary, or light-touch legislation and individual, market-driven action, haven’t worked on these issues, why do we think they will work on mental health?

I’m not wholly cynical though. Perhaps preserving the status quo will very quickly get too costly. Emotionally costly, with stories like those in the FT article discolouring the culture of organisations and the sense of identity of the people who belong to it. Or financially costly, as people leave unhealthy workplaces and the cost of talent goes up.

But if this doesn’t happen, leaders and shareholders have a choice. They can turn a blind eye to the part they’re playing in maintaining workplaces that cause people to kill themselves, and that contribute to planetary breakdown, or they can take responsibility.

Thankfully we won’t have to wait long to see the strength of leaders’ and shareholders’ character. On 20th September, Extinction Rebellion is calling on workers to walk out in support of climate action. Either businesses will accept the short-term costs of staff walking out, or they won’t.

The 20th September will tell us just how much we can expect business to lead, not just on climate, but on every issue that calls for collective action, like gender and mental health. Issues that desperately need positive change, not for the issues themselves, but for me, you, your partner and your children.

By David Willans, Director, Skating Panda