Workers from Bell Canada have recently come forward to report that their mental health has suffered as a result of Bell’s policies and have criticized the company for its poor responses to employees’ mental health. While Bell is certainly not the only corporation whose policies have caused intense stress to its employees, these revelations have come as a shock to many due to the fact that Bell has tried to brand itself as a frontrunner in the mental health movement in recent years, namely through the popular campaign “Bell Let’s Talk”.
In 2011, Bell began “Let’s Talk”, an annual charitable program with the goal of raising awareness about mental health and ending the stigma surrounding the topic. Every January, the company hosts a Bell Let’s Talk Day (in 2018, this day was Jan. 31). On that day, Bell donates five cents for every tweet sent using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag and for every text message sent from a Bell phone. This funding goes to major grants, given to large organizations such as Kids Help Phone and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and to community funds, which must be applied for.
Bell says that by talking about mental health, we can end the stigma surrounding it. This stigma is often cited as a major reason why many people who need mental health services will go without it. Grassroots mental health advocates and survivors have been speaking out against stigma for decades, sparking movements such as Mad Pride and the neurodiversity movement, which call for increased acceptance of mental and neurological differences. However, under capitalism, the group with the most economic capital will always have a further reach. Capitalism has laid the foundations for Bell, Canada’s largest telecom provider, to now dominate the conversation around mental health—a position which the telecom provider, while unqualified, is happy to fill.
If Bell Let’s Talk was not profitable for Bell, they would have no reason to continue the campaign. While it may have helped some individuals in terms of starting a conversation, we must realize that the campaign is essentially one large, very successful advertisement for Bell itself. Under capitalism, advertisers will often try to create an emotional connection to the masses in order to promote their brand and further their profits. Advertisements for Bell Let’s Talk might give the impression that Bell is a “caring” company, one that is committed to combating stigma and facilitating mental health treatment—and yet all of this is in direct opposition to their actions towards their own workers.
“The Bell Effect”
In Bell’s advertisements, the company often cites the fact that mental health is the leading cause of workplace disability in Canada. The most well-known example of this is the Bell television commercial that shows a woman in a suit recording her “out of office” message before the screen shows statistics related to mental health in the workplace.
While Bell states that it is “leading by example” in terms of its own practices as an employer, many current and former Bell employees say that advertisements like the one described above are hypocritical. These workers say that Bell Let’s Talk does nothing more than pay lip service to the issue of mental health, while forcing its employees to hassle and outright lie to customers in order to turn profits for the capitalists. These workers describe being under immense pressure, constantly reminded of their “targets” and threatened with suspension or termination if they do not meet them.
In late 2017, a Bell employee named Andrea Rizzo blew the whistle on the constant pressure she faced at work. During her 20 years of working at Bell, Rizzo reported to CBC that she was pressured to “upsell” to hit targets, with the threat of termination hanging over her head. Rizzo further reports that she was forced to sell services to clients who couldn’t afford them—yet another example of the capitalist class employing disgusting tactics in order to drive up their own profits. As a result, Rizzo reports that “top sellers” were often unethical in their dealings, but that management ignored this in order to keep their profits coming in. Furthermore, workers who did not make their sales were often suspended, while middle management came under pressure from above to push their workers harder. Rizzo reports that she developed carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of working at Bell, for which she had to undergo surgery. Her movement was restricted as a result, yet she was still held to the same sales targets despite the fact that she was unable to perform the same amount of work as her colleagues. Rizzo is currently on stress leave and believes she may have a case for discrimination on the basis of disability.
After Rizzo came forward, more than 600 current and former Bell employees approached CBCGo Public to report similar pressures and the effects they have had on their mental and physical well-being. Among other , workers reported that they had experienced panic attacks, weight loss, ulcers, and other gastrointestinal issues as a result of the stress they were under. There have even been reports of workers vomiting blood. These workers have reported a decline in their mental and physical health as a result of the intense pressure they faced at work, and some have reported that doctors have a name for these symptoms—“The Bell Effect”—due to the fact that they are common among Bell employees.
There have also been reports from workers on contract who experienced the same pressure and negative impacts on their mental health, but were unable to access Bell’s Employee Assistance Program. This meant that these workers were unable to have their mental health care covered by the employer, which was often the source of their mental health challenges. Without coverage, mental health care is often prohibitively expensive. This further compounds the indignity that contract workers at Bell—and many other workers across Canada—are often subjected to.
While it may seem shocking to some that the company behind the Let’s Talk campaign could be treating its workers so poorly, this should not surprise us. The main goal of any business owner under capitalism is to make profits. Any other apparent goals, such as Bell’s supposed commitment to mental health, are only cynical moves that which ultimately serve their drive for increased profits. Anything that endangers profit is cast aside under capitalism. With these factors in mind, the actions of Bell’s executives and the motives behind Bell Let’s Talk begin to make more sense.
Capitalism creates the material conditions that allow mental health to deteriorate—the negative impacts of low wages and precarious work on mental and physical health have been well-documented, as is shown by the case of the 600 Bell employees. Capitalism exacerbates mental health issues and these conditions are therefore inextricable from the capitalist system.
Supporters of Bell Let’s Talk hold the company up as an example of a business using their social and economic capital for “good”; however, as Marxists we understand that it is impossible for the capitalist class to redress the issues it creates and profits from. In the final analysis, Bell is no different from any other corporation—it squeezes profits from workers at the expense of their mental health and well-being and then penalizes them when their symptoms impact those profits. An ad campaign will never be able to fix the effects that capitalism has on workers and those living in poverty.
Mental health services must be fully publicly funded and universally provided to all, as part of a comprehensive universal health-care system that includes pharmacare and therapeutic services. Additionally, according to a 2014 World Health Organization report titled “Social Determinants of Mental Health“, it is well documented that poverty, unemployment, precariousness, inadequate housing and social isolation significantly contribute to and exacerbate mental illness. Therefore, full employment and decent wages and benefits, affordable housing, free education, and training and access to community programs are all vital to tackling mental illness.
However, as the Bell example demonstrates, rather than creating the material conditions to enable us to tackle mental illness, capitalism is moving things in the opposite direction. Rather than new reforms being won for the working class, the dominant trend around the world is a clawing back of social services that were fought for and won in the past. Furthermore, a fully worked out program of fully-funded public works and universal services directly challenges the profit motive of capitalism and will always be fiercely resisted by the ruling class. For these reasons, we must link the fight for funding for mental health services and other demands that would alleviate and address mental illness to the need for the socialist transformation of society.
Only through doing away with capitalism will we truly be able to address the issues of mental health in our society. Once we are freed from poverty, inaccessible and expensive services, and alienation from our work and each other, we will be able to create a world in which we can truly tackle mental illness. We must stand up against those who seek to make profits at the expense of the mental health of their workers and from the exploitation of the experiences of those who live with mental health challenges. We must stand up against stigma, without losing sight of its deep roots within capitalism.