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Prince Harry Is Right – But How Do You Put Mental Health First At Work?

Do you think your mental health and happiness would improve if you quit your job?

We’re in the midst of the ‘Great Resignation’, with swathes of people quitting, spurred on by a pandemic-induced shift in priorities.

Seeking better mental wellbeing is a big part of this – and according to the Duke of Sussex, these resignations “aren’t all bad”.

Speaking as chief impact officer for professional coaching and mental health firm BetterUp earlier this week – a new venture for Harry, who quit his role as a senior working royal in 2020 – he said: “Many people around the world have been stuck in jobs that didn’t bring them joy, and now they’re putting their mental health and happiness first. This is something to be celebrated.”

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The duke’s comments have sparked a backlash though, with many commentators taking to social media to criticise Harry’s remarks for being ‘out of touch’.

After all, quitting a job that doesn’t ‘bring joy’ might not be that easy for many people, especially if they’re living pay-cheque-to-pay-cheque and have dependents to consider.

When it comes to the mental health conversation, it’s a vast picture, and recognising privilege and inequalities is important. That said, for a lot of people right now, could Harry’s comments have struck a chord?

Quitting isn’t always easy

“It’s not always that easy to quit,” acknowledges James Routledge, founder of workplace mental health organisation Sanctus and author of new book Mental Health At Work, “but I do think what [Harry is] saying has validity.

We should be celebrating people making decisions that put their mental health first.

“This culture we’ve had in the last 50 years around work, where you take what you’ve got, you’ve got no agency, you work to live, is changing.

It’s caused a lot of mental health issues over the years and left people feeling powerless and dissatisfied and caused a lot of problems.

I do want us to get to a stage where we are celebrating people making choices that are positive for their health.”

Routledge agrees the past couple of years have enabled people to be “a bit more reflective on their relationship with work”.

He says: “I think previously, we were all in the rat race, jumping in the hamster wheel day after day and we didn’t know any different. The last 18 months have given us time for reflection and a lot of solitude, where people have begun to reflect more on what relationship they have with work, what they’d like to have more of from a work-life balance perspective, how much time they dedicate to work and who they work with and so on.”

Is it time for a culture shift?

Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist with Good Thinking Psychological Services and author of The Grief Collective, agrees that our shifting approach to our work lives and taking care of our wellbeing is still new territory for many people – and it’s important.

“It’s only been a relatively recent change, where people are realising they don’t have to just put up and shut up, and that actually they do matter and their needs are important.

They do get to do something that feels like it’s motivating and rewarding, not just financially but psychologically, and that that’s ok,” says Trent.

She acknowledges that not thriving at work can have a very significant and detrimental impact, affecting “their function, their ability, their wellbeing, and the level of problems they have which might be greater, and perhaps impact on their risk to themselves and others”.

So being in a job that’s making you deeply unhappy and denting your psychological wellbeing is not something to take lightly.

Could we have more power than we think? 

Often, part of the problem is that people can feel very powerless about the situation – and this might be a much trickier deal for some than others.

If you don’t have stable housing, and your family is relying on you to keep things afloat, for example, and retraining is not an affordable option, things might feel a lot more limited.

There are often social and psychological barriers to work through too, agrees Trent.

“Raising your hand and saying I’m doing something different, that can be hard,” she says. We might also need to work through the fears and beliefs holding us back from making changes, if that’s what we really want.

Plus, the idea of making a big life change for the sake of our own well-being can still feel quite selfish for some people.

Trent is keen to remind us that permission to prioritise health and happiness is important. 

“We have to remember that if we are happier, everyone else in our life will benefit from that as well.

Our children will feel better, as we’ll have more time for them and be in a better headspace when we’re with them.

Everyone else’s life will improve incrementally if we’re happier and in a better place.”

We’ve got to start somewhere

Trent and Routledge both agree though that pushing past that sense of powerlessness and regaining belief in our autonomy is key – whether you decide to quit your job, or just want to improve your relationship with your current job.

“I don’t think we can expect everyone to have the luxury of just being able to quit their job. But what I do think is important is for people to realise that they do have more power than they might think.

A lot of us do feel we’re just a cog in a machine and there’s no point,” says Routledge.

But could small actions be a good place to start?

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“If you want to leave your company because you think the working culture is toxic, when you leave, let them know that’s the reason you are leaving,” he suggests.

“That’s a really great way that you can help instigate change. Fill out the employee engagement survey, have a conversation with HR.

“You can hold your own boundaries and actually work 9-5 if that’s what your contract says, instead of working 9-7.

Often what we do at work is give our power away. We just sort of suck up to the working culture and what we think is expected.

But if more people could take responsibility for small changes they can make at work, then we begin to see that sort of groundswell of change.

“People taking care of their own mental health at work is like a beacon for other people to do so as well. If you are a manager and you don’t respond to emails at eight o’clock at night, you are then inspiring or setting the model for your colleagues to do the same.

That’s how we can bring about change – we do have the power to do that, and leaders have the responsibility to listen to the actions, words and feedback of people in their teams.”

We all have a part to play and small actions – like taking lunch breaks and knowing when to switch off – can have a ripple effect that’s required for a wider culture shift. This does not mean employers are off the hook. Absolutely not.

“Right now, we are realising – well perhaps a lot of us in the privileged Western world – we do have power, we have agency, there’s a competitive job market, and although it’s not the case for everyone, we have the choice to decide where we want to work,” says Routledge.

“And as people start to vote with their feet, that’s going to trickle upwards and employers will need to ask some big questions around how they create healthy workplace cultures, how they create meaningful work for people, how they organise things and operate.”