Maria Paviour explores the phenomenon of workplace ‘zombie cultures’, and how to stop them developing

You might enjoy dressing up as one for a party or settling down in front of a monster movie, but it’s much less fun when you start encountering zombies at your workplace.

That’s a slightly flippant observation, but it leads me on to what I think is an incredibly important issue, especially in light of the recent news that more than 300,000 people in the UK leave their jobs because of mental health issues every year.

I first noticed the psychological phenomenon that I dubbed ‘zombification’ when working within the NHS. I truly believe that a zombie culture is endemic within that organisation. For Halloween this year, I published a report entitled Zombie Culture in the NHS. While I’m specifically targeting NHS culture, I think there are lessons here for all public and private sector organisations.

What do I mean by zombification? It’s a useful analogy to describe the desensitised state brought on by extreme anxiety or stress. The cause is what’s known in neuroscience as a ‘vagal break’ – where the vagal nerve in the brain becomes disorientated.

In extreme cases, management will actively use this as a tactic to control their teams. Some managers think they are creating compliant staff through hostility, when in fact those staff are simply not carrying out their work as effectively as they should be. In the NHS, I believe that zombification is a massive root cause of sickness and absenteeism.

I believe a change in leadership style is necessary to combat zombification, and I hope my report will be read in the spirit intended – as a ‘call to arms’ to better support staff wellbeing. How can we do that? The first step is clear: be more honest and open in our conversations about mental health at work. In a recent white paper released for World Mental Health Day, I outlined the four key causes of mental health issues going unreported:

  • Stigma: while many progressive workplaces have begun to address the stigma around mental health through dialogue, it remains a major barrier for many sufferers.

  • Language: employees often lack the words to explain their situation, thanks to the inconsistent language describing mental health.

  • Presenteeism: particularly in competitive industries and workplaces, many staff will refuse to take a leave of absence because of illness, be it physical or mental.

  • Organisation-centric initiatives: many HR professionals recognise that mental health initiatives lose their impact when they give the impression of addressing organisational concerns, rather than helping individuals overcome their problems.

In particular, it’s my belief that presenteeism is the lifeblood of zombification. It affects judgement and perspective, makes you more closed-minded and ultimately stops people functioning.

I would welcome comments and feedback, as this is forming part of a larger body of research that I am undertaking, and so if you have experiences – in the NHS in particular – that resonate with this I would really like to hear from you, and your contributions can be kept anonymous if you prefer.

Maria Paviour (hello@mariapaviour.com) is an award-winning occupational psychologist, author, conference speaker and founder of the Maria Paviour Company. Download your copy of Zombie Culture in the NHS here