To Work or not to Work


One of the topics that continually features in one of the Changes weekly groups (and, I suspect, all of the others also) is the topic of work–not having a job, looking for a job, getting a job, doing a job. And it’s a very ambiguous and contradictory topic, with highly conflicting feelings involved. Because, although it seems to be an aspect of life that greatly affects people’s mental health, it’s definitely not as simple as ‘work is good for you, no work is bad’, as the comments from the group revealed…

Firstly, the transition from ‘non-work’ to ‘work’ is a very difficult one and especially so if the work is full time. It’s a real shock to the system. Getting up at a certain time, spending the whole day away from your usual environment, maybe dealing with many unfamiliar people, having new responsibilities…it can be terrifying.  And so very relentless, suddenly taking up almost all of your time. It’s a transition that can also have serious practical consequences…once you’re committed to it, your benefits are gone and there’s no going back.

Secondly, there’s the Catch-22 situation people find themselves in, where, if they don’t declare their mental health issues, the necessary adjustments can’t be made, but, if they do, there’s automatic prejudice against them right from the start. This results in either too much pressure, too high expectations, from employers and co-workers, or too low expectations, where, as one group member put it, ‘everyone’s just waiting for you to fail’.

And thirdly, there’s the lack of flexibility. As someone else in the group said, ‘you have good days and bad days’; however, you’re expected to be completely consistent and to conform to a certain model, to fit into a certain ‘box’. And this is very stressful, ensuring that it becomes harder and harder to remain in that box.

None of this, though, means that work is seen as an entirely negative thing. Certainly, just as many negative feelings constantly emerge in the group around being completely out of work…lack of self-esteem, lack of social status i.e. the (very justified) feeling that those in work are largely judgmental towards the unemployed, lack of any kind of focus to your day, feelings of uselessness, purposelessness and isolation. Interestingly, lack of money, although it gets a mention, is relatively low down on the list of negative consequences, while anxiety about poverty, rather than poverty itself, is much higher.

This seems to fit with the reading I’ve done about this topic—for instance, U.S. psychology professor Barry Schwartz, in his 2015 book “Why we work”, mentions the main reasons why people seem to like work; feelings of being engaged and challenged by their work; finding it meaningful; being socially involved with others. This last point applies even if people are working in some kind of freelance or lone working capacity, as this work still brings them into some kind of purposeful contact with others. And it’s this ‘purposeful contact’ that is so important. As attendance of religious establishments decreases, as people have less time for shared hobbies and, arguably, there is less general feeling of ‘community’, work increasingly fills the social void. This explains why many unemployed people drink or take drugs habitually–it’s not just that the substance but the social group they need, a social group with a shared purpose. Schwarz also notes the importance of feeling autonomous due to your work i.e. in control of your own life. And it’s certainly true, in my experience, that you feel more in control receiving wages than benefits…when you’re dependent on benefits you’re exactly that–dependent–and it makes you feel helpless.

All of this suggests that work is not important to people primarily because of the money it brings, as you might expect, but because of the feeling of social identity. Is this a good thing? As Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, “You are not your job”.  And yet, for many, work seems to be taking over, not just giving them a sense of identity but becoming their whole identity. Increasing demands from people’s work, increasing hours, increasing emphasis on productivity.. with everything in work being measured, even the length of emails, in an effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from workers  …the ‘always-on’ factor of laptops, smartphones etc…the increasing tyranny of externally imposed targets…has caused the Mental Health Foundation to describe work as the ‘biggest, most pressing challenge to the mental health of the nation’, with 40% of employees they talked to neglecting other aspects of their lives and, of those who worked overlong hours, 27% feeling depressed, 34% anxious and 58% irritable.

(And why such long hours for some workers when shorter working hours can increase morale and motivation and therefore increase productivity? Why such long hours for some and zero hours for others? Why not share work out more fairly? And why is this obsession with time-managed productivity extending to children? Why aren’t they allowed just to do nothing, instead of always being ‘scheduled’ Presumably to turn them into a new generation of conformist, well-behaved little workers…two brief asides… )

So clearly work is not the glowing remedy for all psychological and spiritual ills that it’s often thought to be. And this is especially so if the work of ‘low psychosocial quality’… insecure, badly paid and with tight controls on workers’ autonomy…such as jobs in factories, fast food restaurants, call centres. These are jobs that the average person finds monotonous, meaningless and utterly soul destroying…and the ‘non-average’ person generally finds even more so, to the point of being intolerable. Because this is something else that arose from discussions in the group that inspired this article, that those with mental health issues found it even harder than others to do a job they hate, not because they’re lazy or incapable but because they’re more ‘sensitive’—to their surroundings, other people etc. and also to the meaningfulness, or otherwise, of what they do. Put simply, they’re not unemployed because they care less about work, but because they care more.

As said at the beginning, it’s complicated. The Royal College of Psychiatrists found that those who were unemployed for more than 12 weeks were between 4 and 10 times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety; also had increased levels of suicide, doctors’ visits and bad physical health. But was unemployment the cause or the effect? The RCPsych were very sure it was the cause and I’m very sure this is true. Based on the experiences of the group, myself and almost everyone I know, lengthy lack of work is seriously detrimental to your wellbeing.  But it’s equally true that just getting back to work isn’t enough, as not just any job will do. The latest Gallup poll found that, out of 25 million employees in 189 countries, only 13% of workers were truly ‘engaged’ with their work, while 63% were just ‘sleepwalking’ and 24% actively ‘hated’ their jobs.

And, when it comes to those who already consider themselves to have mental health issues, to work or not to work is an even more difficult question. And it seems the feelings of the Changes group are not atypical. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that those with mental health conditions that they surveyed wanted more flexible working, more supportive managers and more understanding from colleagues. The problem is that, while they may want, and actually need, these things, they may not be getting them…


The views expressed in this post represent those of the author and are not necessarily those of Changes Bristol

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