Is the psychological strain on MPs not only damaging to their health, but also threatening the health of our democracy? Dr James Weinberg discusses new research, with colleagues from political science and psychology, into the pressures on mental health and wellbeing that accompany political office
We have the ‘pictures [of politicians] in our heads’, as Walter Lippmann put it, but these pictures are all too often formed through a media prism that has little regard for the unique and universal pressures on mental health and wellbeing that accompany political office. In a new article for the journal Parliamentary Affairs, I explore these stressors with colleagues from across the disciplinary boundaries of political science and psychology. The emphasis is not on the specific institutions of representative politics per se, nor the growing politics of mental health, but rather how those individuals elected to political office cope (or not) with the psychological strain of contributing to the legislative process. We argue that these stressors – outlined in a three-tiered, nine-part taxonomy – are not only intensifying, but that the health of democracy may, to an extent, depend on the mental health and psychological wellbeing of those we elect to represent and take decisions on our behalf.
At the broad cultural level, we identify three stressors – expectations, distrust, and political labour – that are particularly pertinent in politics. We argue, for example, that the demand for politicians to inflate public expectations in order to secure office is a major source of pressure and stress, especially as, once in power, they may very quickly realise that their control capacity and the available resources are insufficient to fulfil the psychological contract they have created with voters. As the gap between policy supply and demand widens, failure is inevitable as are feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, and betrayal on both sides.
Politicians work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. The public can now watch MPs work in real time through the internet or the BBC Parliament channel, but it appears, paradoxically, that these efforts to open up Parliament may have made its members far more vulnerable to popular cynicism, a disinterested and hypercritical commercial media, and the immediacy of snap online reprimands. As the UK’s Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) concluded in December 2017: ‘the scale and intensity of intimidation is now shaping public life in ways which are a serious issue’ (CSPL 2017, p.13).
In order to appear loyal or credible, to meet competing demands and eschew popular criticism, politicians are also constantly engaged in a process of surface acting whereby they must ‘manage’ their personal cognitions and emotions. This is stressful, exhausting, and known in psychology as emotional labour. Moreover, emotional labour is often associated with occupational burnout and an estrangement from one’s self-identity. Politicians – more than any other occupational group – arguably risk ‘losing’ themselves amidst detrimental yet startlingly necessary inconsistencies in their thoughts and behaviours.
By contrast to the macro-level stressors, those at the meso-level (organisational cultural, leadership, and temporal) are borne directly out of the occupational setting and institutions within which politicians must operate. Parliamentary socialisation (into a job with no proper description) remains, for example, largely informal and bereft of continued support frameworks. And on top of that, politicians (and their staff) work in an aggressive, adversarial, and hyper-masculine environment characterised by ‘a culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.’ (Cox Report, 2018, p.4).
Moreover, politicians must cope with making high-pressured decisions in stable or unstable times – whether it be a vote in the Common’s chamber, a policy announcement, or even military deployment. These disproportionate responsibilities are very quickly assumed and even more quickly lost. Few professions are as insecure or capricious as politics, and insecurity can be extremely stressful. Politicians embark on a hyper-precarious career characterised by unpredictability, and the experience of losing office can be sudden, financially ruinous, and personally profound in terms of a sudden sense of dislocation and loss of purpose.
The final three stressors (lifestyle, control, and skills) relate specifically to those everyday aspects of politicians lives that change when they enter office. In this respect, politics is (like many professions) both quantitatively and qualitatively difficult: 41% of politicians in the UK Parliament work in excess of 70 hours a week and many must spend most of their time in London away from their constituency homes. In spite of changes to the legislative timetable, political life remains inconducive to a happy and healthy personal life.
The wide-ranging demands on politicians’ time and energy – e.g. constituency, party, legislative, media and possibly ministerial – also make it difficult to plan. The specific requirement of politicians to implement reform, deliver public policies or prevent terrorist attacks highlights how politicians exist in a social milieu fraught with challenges to exercising control. This lack of agency stands in stark contrast to the hopes and dreams of aspiring legislators. It is then possibly even more worrying that politicians receive no continuing professional development to help them acquire the soft skills and coping mechanisms needed in a job that demands no formal qualifications. The notion of a professional politician may be socially loaded with notions of spin and inauthenticity, but the burdens of political office demand a far more professionalised approach to in-house training and support.
We do not present this taxonomy as either fixed or complete, but it provides an organising framework for empirical research into MPs’ mental health and wellbeing that we believe is sorely needed. To a certain degree, we also see this taxonomy as transferable to aspects of many public sector professions. Lots of professions are stressful and seek to perform under different combinations of the stressors outlined in our article. Indeed, colleagues in Higher Education will undoubtedly relate to many of these stressors, and future research might take this taxonomy as the point of departure for a comparative study of public sector wellbeing more broadly. However, our core argument is that politics generates its own variations on these stressors, and academe has a vested interest in both studying and improving the emotional and cognitive performance of our elected representatives.
Dr James Weinberg is a postdoctoral research associate on the Q-Step programme at the University of Sheffield and an Associate Fellow of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre. Alongside his interdisciplinary work in the field of political psychology, James has a keen research interest in the practice and politics of citizenship education. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesWeinberg1
This blog draws on research published in a new Parliamentary Affairs article co-authored by ‘Governing under Pressure? The Mental Wellbeing of Politicians’.