When Hannah first started working at her university, she was excited to work with a group of colleagues who shared her vision of contributing to the public good.

She spent a happy six years feeling like she was serving this goal. Two years later, her GP described her as having symptoms consistent with a mental breakdown. 

What changed? Hannah lost her belief that her colleagues shared her commitment to the public good. She explained how “several senior individuals prioritised building relationships with senior staff or performing tasks that were very visible to senior staff, instead of performing their core duties to the community.”  

One manager – working as temporary cover for a worker on maternity leave – neglected Hannah and her team, and then took credit for their work. When the maternity leave was done, this manager was promoted into an even more senior role.  

Psychologists and philosophers working in various fields of trauma have noted the powerful role played by the ‘just world hypothesis’ – the belief that the world is inherently fair.

The just world belief leads us to assume that if we’re nice, we’ll be treated nicely in return, if we work as hard as someone else, we’ll be equally recognised and so forth. Unfortunately, the just world hypothesis is sometimes disproved, and the results can be psychologically disruptive.  

In some cases, people will double-down on their commitment to the just world hypothesis, and conclude that if they’ve been mistreated, it must be because they’ve done something wrong. In other cases, they might conclude that the world simply isn’t fair, and can’t be relied on. In Hannah’s case, it was the latter.  

These issues were structural, existential, ethical and were psychically wounding me,” says Hannah. “I saw evidence that the quality of my work was irrelevant to my job security – it was more about who I rubbed shoulders with.”  

Hannah wound up doubling her anxiety medication, taking stress leave and resigning from the university. “I still feel nauseous thinking about work, and had a panic attack last week when I accidentally opened Outlook,” she says.  

Hannah’s story isn’t a one-off. It’s backed up by hard data.  

The recent Ethical Advantage report commissioned by The Ethics Centre found your mental health was affected by your belief in the following three things: 

  1. Whether or not people keep their word  
  2. Whether or not people honestly honour their agreements  
  3. Whether or not people will step on others to succeed 

The more you agree with these statements, the better your mental (and physical) health is likely to be. But the reverse is also true.

The less able you are to trust in the people around you to act ethically, the more likely your health – both mental and physical – is to suffer.  

If I had been able to keep the perception that colleagues around me were good people I would have been able to maintain a sort of we’re all in this together mentality,” says Hannah. Instead, witnessing competitive, dishonest behaviour led her to lose faith in what the university stood for, and the people she worked with.  

Our research has found that all it takes is 10%. If people feel like the people around them are 10% better – just a little bit – it’s enough to give their health a bump. In some cases, it’s enough to keep someone from quitting, from experiencing a mental illness or doing something they think is wrong. From little things, big changes can grow. 

For Hannah, those little things are exactly those identified in the Ethical Advantage report. What would have made a difference to her would have been seeing people “doing as they say, and following through.”  

“A lot of hurt has happened when senior staff have said one thing, then said a very different, contradictory thing the next week, she says.   

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Hannah’s story is how preventable it all was. She was good at her job. She’s smart and worked hard, and was driven to anxiety and burnout by an environment of competition and manipulation.  

This hit especially hard for H because her workplace put a particular focus on health and wellbeing. The university “pays a lot of lip service to health and wellbeing. Senior leaders talk about it all the time, and make sure we stay resilient and know that we’re supported’,” says Hannah 

Cass R Sunstein, a legal scholar and author of Nudge, which helped champion a new wave of behavioural economics, believes that we have a deeply-held moral heuristic to punish betrayals of trust.

This means the more we believe we can trust someone, the more harshly we judge breaches of that trust.

In Hannah’s case, her faith in her colleagues, in the purpose of the institution and in the care the university promised her were all let down.  

The reason why the university’s culture became so competitive was because of a change of strategic priorities. Hannah’s university put a higher focus on income than education. Hannah explained how her university had become more profit driven, especially this year.” As a result, “an every man for himself’ attitude proliferated,” she said.  

Ironically, because of the mental health implications of drifting away from its true purpose, the university’s goal – better financial outcomes – becomes harder to achieve. It’s expensive to have staff experiencing burnout and mental health issues. Hannah is now on stress leave.  

In 2018, KPMG estimated that every instance of mental illness in the workplace costs an organisation $3200. On its own, this may not seem like much in the context of an organisation. However, data from the Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing suggests almost 20% of the workforce experience mental health disorder. For a university of 3500 staff, that amounts to over $2 million a year in lost productivity. And that’s before we consider the more important costs – the pain and suffering of people like Hannah.  

And the irony goes deeper. The competitive, ‘every person for themselves’ mentality caused Hannah to lose faith in the people around her. She no longer believed they were ethical people. Which is unfortunate, because our findings suggest people who are perceived as ethical can enjoy a bump to their wages. If you’re out for yourself, there’s a chance you’ll only be stepping on your own toes.  

Of course, the reason for taking care of someone else’s mental health, treating them with respect and honouring your word isn’t because there’s something in it for you. If that’s all that’s motivating you, then something’s gone wrong. We should want to care for people at work because we care about them, period. People spend an inordinate amount of time at work – it’s a huge part of their lives – and they should be able to flourish there.

However, what this data helps us understand is just how easy it can be to turn things around for some people who aren’t living their best lives at work.   

There are times when ethics can feel like an impossible burden. When the obligations thrust on us come at far too high a personal price. This isn’t one of those times. Hannah didn’t need to suffer. The university didn’t need to lose someone of her passion and talent. If only the people around her had tried a little harder to keep their word, acknowledge her work and do their jobs, she could have avoided a world of heartache. What’s more, there would have been no downside.   

Hannah’s story is not unique. There’s a chance there are people like her in your workplace, your community, or even your family. So tomorrow, why not try being a little better? You don’t need to be a saint. Just 10% better.   

That’s all it takes.