Our mental environment

It is all too easy to consider the natural environment as something separate and distinct from the social world of people living in our created worlds of cities and towns.

No doubt it is generally convenient to break down complex systems into separate elements to understand our place in the world. However, convenience should not be at the cost of appreciating how complex systems, like the environment, in reality cut across such demarcations. Yet what could possibly be the link between the environment and our mental health?

In fact, our human environment shares many of the features we see in the natural world and, in particular, our workplace cultures. When we look at the natural world we can see that so much of its activity – animal or plant – is taken up by the effort to acquire ‘energy’ and avoid death by predators or from starvation. We can see the competition involved in this activity, as famously described by Charles Darwin as survival of the fittest. But we also see collaboration where animals and plants act in union to increase their chances of success and survival. Nature gives many examples of where the ‘fittest’ is the result of a joint effort.

With competition and collaboration driving the survival of all life over millions of years, it should be no surprise that such deep forces influence the human, cultural worlds we constantly create. Such social worlds are themselves built out of how we balance – and often fail to balance – these twin forces.

Trade, for example, looks like a simple example of the importance of competition: to develop a product before someone else and convince others of its value and persuade them to buy it instead of a rival’s product, etc. Yet this analysis of how aggressive competition is ‘natural’ to people mistakes the collaboration that has already taken place to build the networks that enable trade.

In the workplace, these deep forces appear in a great deal of what we call the psychosocial, of how our psychological and social world has been built out of our responses to these forces. For example, if self-preservation and a desire to thrive is hard-wired in all of us, then how we ‘survive’ in working with or against others (whether our own species or not) will define both our own psychology and the social world that is co-created.

Of course, like any system, we do not start from zero and we ‘inherit’ a workplace culture. If the workplace is highly competitive, with employees left alone to ‘prove’ themselves, then those who have a more collaborative psychology will question whether such an approach is good for their own ‘survival’ or that of their workplace, because employment is also a question of survival.

It is easy to see how a very competitive culture without a sense of common purpose can lead to bullying and blame

Each workplace will have its own culture and, for the most part, different types of people will adapt and influence it. In the example above, there will of course be critics complaining about ‘how things are done around here’ and this is to be expected. However, if this becomes too extreme – and I’m writing this during Mental Health Awareness Week – if the culture swings too far to one side of this competitive/collaborative divide, then there are real dangers of psychosocial risks like stress and anxiety breaking out.

It is easy to see how a very competitive culture without a sense of common purpose can lead to bullying and blame, where survival seems to depend on being ‘better’ than others by denigrating the contributions of others.

By understanding that human environments like the workplace can learn a great deal from the broader environmental forces we are all situated within, then we can more clearly perceive the benefits of balancing competition and collaboration.

In this, there is also a lesson for the impact we are clearly having on the environment, whether polluting it or just the inconsiderate use of precious natural resources.

Balanced workplace culture will be at the heart of any future relationship between our human and non-human environments, if it is to be sustainable for all.

Mike Robinson FCA is Chief executive of the British Safety Council