When Theresa May missed one of the biggest job interviews on offer by choosing not to attend the BBC’s Election Debate, her absence may have said as much to the electorate as any claims made by her opponents that evening. In May’s place, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, was left to audition alongside six other candidates who each jostled to say the right thing, to smile or grimace at the right time, and to present themselves as the right suitor for the nation.
Amid the 24-hour news cycle of an election campaign, little time is given to consider the impact this race to the top may be having on the mental well-being of MPs. Being an MP brings extraordinary responsibilities – and ongoing research has shown that MPs’ personalities are also extraordinary. This combination can make them particularly vulnerable to poor mental health.
I have identified threats to the mental health of politicians based in three unique pressures of their job: personality politics, workplace stressors, and the weight of great expectations.
Threat 1: personality politics
The personalisation of politics in the last 50 years has been characterised by a process of political packaging, both of parties and politicians. While the media focus on the charisma or character flaws of politicians, political parties envision substantial returns from investments aimed at moulding attractive telegenic candidates. This process, tied to modern political communication, is highly toxic for MPs’ mental health.
In many service-facing industries, employees are compelled to manage their emotions to conform with expectations of positive service delivery. The effort of acting to display emotions that are not actually felt produces internal tensions, feelings of inauthenticity and estrangement from one’s self-identity. Psychological studies have found that these cognitive and affective processes are linked to negative mood, lower job satisfaction, and higher levels of burnout.
The apogee of this demand for “surface acting” in political life is the television debate, where stakes are at their highest. In the week after the first television debate in the 2010 election campaign, Labour leader Gordon Brown’s relative deficit of charisma on live television precipitated a quick decline in his public ratings. According to Simon Schama, Brown was then given “ill-advised instructions to leaven his customary gravitas with moments of jocularity”. By forcibly altering his sense of self and attempting to match his personality to an ideal type, Brown was engaging in an extreme form of the emotional labour that MPs must endure every time they speak to a constituent or stand up in the House of Commons.
In their bids to cultivate consistently attractive public personalities, MPs will find themselves at a heightened risk of poor mental health and well-being.
Threat 2: surviving the workplace
Inside the “safety” of Westminster, MPs must cope with an exceptionally stressful working culture and the esoteric process of settling in to parliamentary life. In a study of newly elected MPs, one MP reflected:
If you get drawn into it, you begin to lose touch with reality and life on the ground … everybody is disposable.
In what could be called the “politics of parliament”, the psychologist Richard Kwiatkowski highlighted a number of daily working political practices inside Westminster. These include “finding someone else to blame or highlighting other peoples’ flaws and errors” – such as the previous government’s agenda or the failings of an opposition member – or “using social settings to discover opinions” – for instance using party whips to extract opinions at covert informal gatherings.
This game of smoke and mirrors and cloaked intentions could be conducive to paranoia, anxiety and cynical uncertainty. Existing research already shows that levels of stress among national politicians are higher than among workers in comparable management jobs. There is also an ever-present fear of deselection or losing a seat, and the future beyond Westminster is often obscure. Promotion can frequently depend on the whim of the executive and certain expectations of party whips.
On top of all this, life as a professional politician is all-consuming and the psychological strains felt in the job are also likely to affect family life and personal relationships.
Threat 3: great expectations
In the current anti-political climate, the public are stoically distrustful of democratically elected MPs. As a result, politicians find themselves under intense public scrutiny that is punctuated by paradoxical expectations.
The public expect their politicians to be both principled and pragmatic. Yet when politicians remain dogmatic in their adherence to a set of principles they are often decried as harbingers of stalemate or even a danger to a nation. Criticism of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence on a diplomatic foreign policy built upon values of peaceful resolution at all costs is a prime example. But if politicians divert from principle too easily to reach a compromise, they are cast as unreliable and opportunistic. The Liberal Democrat’s decision to abandon the abolition of tuition fees to enter coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 is a prominent case. Thus a trap is laid, in which politicians constantly face Catch-22 situations and must alter their public preferences to be all things to all people.
On top of this the terror attack at Westminster on May 22 and the appalling murder of Jo Cox MP have heightened our sensitivity to the dangers of elected office. The need to handle public victimisation and vilification, while ostensibly working for the common good of that same public, carries a significant psychological health warning.
Successful candidates in this general election will quickly need to learn that June 8th is just the beginning of a uniquely stressful and emotionally tasking occupation. The potential significance of this is collective. For our democracy to function effectively, we need MPs who are both physically and mentally fit for the job.