Life Is a Four-Letter Word – A Mental Health Survival Guide for Professionals

Life Is a Four-Letter Word – A Mental Health Survival Guide for Professionals

Author: Andy Salkeld
Review by: Graham White

As I relax in semi-retirement, I can say with certainty that one of my greatest joys is to read and on occasion to undertake book reviews of the publications I peruse. Most of these books relate to my profession of Human Resources and almost all proffer to deliver positive direction or enhanced performance for the reader in their field of work. They each set out to provide within their pages a collection of information that will improve career prospects or professional advancement. It is what management books are all about, it is what their purpose is, read me and you will be better at your job, you will get promotion, you will sell more, everything will get better. Sometimes I get an opportunity to read other nonfiction books that carry messages of hope or assurance, guidance or direction but never have I been asked to review a book that did not tick at least one of these boxes.

“Life Is A Four-Letter Word” is a publication by Andy Salkeld. I’m not sure I want to say it was a privilege to read it, I  certainly cannot say I enjoyed reading it and yet I find myself desperately wanting to persuade every one of you to buy this book, read it and then share it with every colleague and subordinate you work with. This is a book that should be marketed as the perfect graduation gift for every student about to set off into the world of work. It should be included in every organisation reading list and part of their Stress At Work programmes and most importantly should be essential reading for every CEO and aspiring CEO who thinks they can achieve organisational success by pushing their workforce to the limit of their endurance.

We are settled now in this new microwave age where the expectation of new generations is that everything is instant. Technology has made it easier for employers to monitor workers and fill up their days with tasks, while mobile phones and emails mean people find it almost impossible to “switch off”.  Whilst many have struggled to explain or quantify what is happening to them everyone is experiencing a sharp increase in work intensification. Whilst that is not to say we have not all felt work pressures at some time in our careers the pace and consequence of 21st century culture of instancy has created an environment where it is now the norm to always come home exhausted physically and mentally from work.

Into this environment comes the author of “Life Is A Four-Letter Word.” It’s been a long time since I have referred to an author as brave and I am certain Andy Salkeld has never attributed that adjective to himself but having read this book from cover to cover I can think of no other word that reflects the inspiration that brought him here. His motivation for this book is obvious from the second sentence of the Preface when he informs the reader that he never thought he would be alive today. Sentence three is even more hard hitting when we are assured by Andy that he anticipated his demise would be self-inflicted and way outside of any natural order. And there you have it in a nutshell, this book is a guide to help you navigate the mental health challenges the workplace throws at you as both a worker and a manager. At its core it addresses the stigma that we all want to avoid as it stomps on the eggshells that most HR departments and line managers prefer to tiptoe through.

This book takes on the challenge of embracing the realities of depression and compels you to look deep inside yourself and ask painful questions that you might never have asked before. As the writer shares his own experience you find yourself revisiting each job you have had and overlaying his experience with yours as you remember those manager bullies and cultural presenteeism. As Salkeld explains the impact of toxic workplace cultures and poor leadership on him you cannot help but ask yourself was I also a victim or a perpetrator.

Despite depression being the most common mental health problem in Europe and worldwide, and accounts for more than half of all UK long-term absence in the workplace it still very rarely appears on GP Fit Notes or employee self-certificates. With three out of every four employees off ill with depression lying on their self-certificates and almost the same number not seeking professional help the writer of this book holds no punches declaring that this major public health concern is addressable but only if action is taken and society acknowledges that mental health does not sit separately from physical health and neither is it a sign of weakness and both are treatable.

The book is structured in a very logical fashion taking you, as the reader through a timeline that traces the theme, we quickly realise to be depression. After a remarkably interesting opening that plants theory seeds and shows the true impact our formative youth has on our life long wellbeing the next section of the book provide both an informative and coercing narrative that pulls you into the life of Andy. As you journey with him through his world, career, and personal life you start to feel like you are getting to know him and empathise with him but Andy quickly corrects this line of thought and assures the reader that this is just another ruse depression has to convince humanity that it is someone else’s condition and not yours. As you read and re-read chapters three to six you begin to realise the enormity of the challenge mental wellbeing is for society as a whole and for each individual within it.

You would be forgiven at this stage for thinking I am describing a reference book or case study for students of psychiatry. This book is very definitely not that, although I would not be surprised to see it quickly join the essential reading list for psychiatric medical students and those studying psychology. This book is also a masterpiece of grim humour, taking a subject that the writer deeply understands and lives on a daily basis he uses the weapon of humour to help present the information in a way that grabs your attention and keeps you on the edge of your seat. You want to read, and you want to throw this book down in equal measure as you struggle to separate the events from your own experience of life and work.

Chapters holding titles like “Spoon Theory” and “white collars can’t jump”  can only wet your appetite for this read but it is not my style to give away the secrets of a book as good as this. However, what I can assure you of is that once you start to read it you will become a secret page turner looking ahead hoping for a glimpse of the next set of italics that you know will have you either laughing or crying.  And do not be surprised to find yourself doing both in equal measure along with some collar tugging and soul searching, but please don’t jump ahead too far, I want you to enjoy a final wide grin as the book has a sting in its tail on page 295.

Depression is a challenge for people experiencing it and those close to them but is also a puzzle for health systems and labour markets. Depression is much more common than we care to admit, with one in seven people likely to experience it, and carries significant personal, societal, and economic costs. Work-related depression alone is said to cost Europe over €700 billion, including employee absenteeism and lost economic output. Salkeld’s book is not going to single-handedly build strong, fair economies and resilient workplaces but I believe this publication and more like it are playing a vital part in bringing the issue of mental health in the workplace into focus and ensuring it is not hidden or undermined by outdated cultural failings.

In its 300 pages Andy Salkeld’s book sets an impressive example of how organisations and individuals should address depression in the workplace. It demands action to prevent psychosocial workplace risks, it’s a call to arms to promote resilience and wellbeing and it’s a living case study on the importance for organisations and employers to create internal cultures that actively promote systems that will enable early detection of poor mental health.

It would be amiss of me not to finish with a few words of caution for the reader. As I have said I liked and dreaded this book with equal measure as it forced me to question my values, motives, and behaviours. However, there is one other aspect of the book that readers need to be aware of, with a title of “Life is a Four-Letter Word” you need to be ready for a book that holds no punches. It is a straight-talking account that is clearly profane in its systematic and regular use of a range of four-letter words that are part of life but not always spoken in polite company. However, as Richard Pryor once said, “What I’m saying might be profane, but it’s also profound.”  This book is the writers account of what it’s like to suffer from depression, plan your suicide and then come back from the ‘edge so in my world that makes it profound.

Published by Practical Inspiration Publishing

Graham White, Retired HR Director