16th July 2019

Opinion: Boris Johnson Is Deluded For Saying Work Cures Mental Health

TW: This article will discuss mental health and topics which some readers may find upsetting. Please see the bottom of the article for contact information for support charities.

British politics are absolute madness at the moment. What with Brexit happening (or not happening) and two of the country’s least favourite politicians battling it out to be PM, we didn’t think it could get any worse.

Well, lucky for us, turns out it can.

This week, Boris Johnson wrote an article for right wing paper, The Telegraph, claiming that work was the cure to mental health issues.

Boris Johnson focuses on the financial cost of mental health issues, rather than the emotional

The article in its entirety is a bit of a shit show. Johnson starts by citing Churchill, explaining that one of Britain’s most famed Prime Ministers is known to have suffered from poor mental health, and that “it was with work that he pitchforked off his depression.”

He then goes on to cite some fairly shocking statistics on mental health in the uk:

  • 5.9 people in 100 have a generalised anxiety disorder
  • The male suicide rate is 15 per 100,000
  • The female suicide rate is 5 per 100,000
  • 57% of sick days taken by employees are caused by mental health related issues
  • One in 6 adults will experience an episode of mental ill health in the next week

Whilst he uses these statistics to show that levels of suicides and reported mental health have decreased, his point quickly falls short.

Instead of focusing on the emotional consequences of these statistics, Johnson focuses on the financial.

He cites a study by the John Lewis Partnership, which worked out that stress-related illnesses were costing the nation £84 billion per year.

Johnson then goes on to say, when people leave jobs because of poor mental health, the ‘burden’ is taken by the NHS, welfare payments and their families.

He then adds that, after leaving work, people “are at risk of entering a downward spiral of depression.” Right, I’m going to need a minute.

Do you not think that someone who is suffering from mental illness to the extent that they are considering leaving their job, has already considered this?

Do you not think they already feel awful enough about these consequences?

Do you also think that the financial implications are their sole concern?

What about the emotional toll of staying in work, or letting their family watch them continue to suffer?

How about needing time to heal, to grieve, to seek help?

To imply that people who leave work due to emotional struggles are then going to get worse is a hugely misguided, sweeping statement, which lacks any understanding of the complicated lives of those suffering from poor mental health.

Boris Johnson thinks work is the cure for the country’s mental health sufferers

So, what’s Johnson’s answer to this ‘financial burden’ caused by the mentally unwell? Work them harder.

He cites “presenteeism,” as the cure, saying that employees who stay in work and perform well are prevented from feeling stress. Quite different from the dictionary definition of presenteeism, which is: “the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than is required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one’s job.’

Doesn’t sound like a cure to me.

Johnson goes on to pitch an idea for how companies can achieve this ‘cure’. He says that companies who look after the mental health of their employees, and keep them in work, should be given tax breaks as an incentive.

At the moment, he says companies get a meagre £500 reimbursement if a member of their staff is off for more than a month, and that doesn’t provide enough appeal to look after staff health.

Whilst it’s great that Johnson wants to improve mental health at work, this is not the way to do it.

Ok, I’ll give it to you. It’s great that he wants to improve mental health in the workplace, however, the focus of his narrative continues to be economics, rather than actual wellbeing.

The whole article lacks any depth, any emotional understanding. By implying that gratifying work will cure mental health, he is dismissing a barrage of other factors which contribute to someone’s ill mental health.

What about people who go home to a difficult and complex family life?

What about those suffering from addiction, or bereavement? What about people who are below the poverty line? What about full time parents? What about those who have mental or physical disabilities which prevent them from working full time?

His whole argument is thoughtless and ignorant.


If you would like to talk about your mental health, the Samaritans are there 24 hours a day, and you can call them on 116 123. Alternatively, drop them an email via jo@samaritans.org


By Charlotte Ellis