Why aren’t we thriving at work?

With mental health problems forcing thousands of people out of their jobs, we need to fundamentally re-imagine the role that work plays in our lives.  

Rhiannon Colvin
26 November 2017

Credit: Constance Laisne. All rights reserved.

This month the UK government-commissioned ‘Thriving at Work’ report was released, stating that 300,000 people with long term mental health problems are losing their jobs each year, and that poor mental health is costing the UK economy up to £99 billion.

For those who graduated from university into a post-crisis economy, this is no surprise. In 2016 The Mental Health foundation reported that young people in the UK have some of the poorest mental wellbeing in the world: could this have something to do with the ever-greater precarity of work, the rise of zero hours contracts, and the constant pressure we face to fight for a shrinking number of well-paid jobs?  

For my generation the recommendations made in the report— like developing greater mental health awareness in workplaces and encouraging a healthier work-life balance—feel like moving chairs around on a sinking ship. They don’t go nearly far enough to deal with the interlinked crisis of work and mental health that we face today.

In order to solve this crisis we need something much, much bigger: we need to fundamentally re-imagine the role that work plays in our lives.

The causes of mental health problems are complex, but it’s well known that they are related to deprivation, poverty and inequality. Against the background of these wider factors, both the Royal College of Psychiatrists and The World Health Organisation (WHO) cite the workplace as one of the key determinants of mental well-being, so why is the workplace so important?

The WHO suggests that employment provides five categories of psychological experience that promote mental well-being: time structure, social contact, collective effort and purpose, social identity and regular activity. But with an increase in unemployment, zero-hours contracts and freelance work, many of those positive aspects of work have been eroded. The isolation of freelancers and an associated increase in depression have been well-documented. The instability of zero-hours contracts—and moving continuously in and out of work—fail to provide regular routines, strong social identities and time structure. And anxieties linked to financial survival as a consequence of irregular work and the increasing cost of living have never been higher.

Lobbying big employers to improve working conditions for those suffering from mental health problems at work is all well and good, but for the rest of us that don’t even know what holiday and sick pay look like, things will likely remain the same. Furthermore, this strategy fails to get to the root of the problem: why are so many of us feeling depressed and anxious at work?

In a 2015 survey more than a third of British workers said that their job “was making no meaningful contribution to the world,” a phenomenon that anthropologist David Graeber has called the rise of “bullshit jobs.” We’re either overworked or unemployed, so let’s face it: the current reality of work isn’t working.

So what’s the solution? What would a different world of work entail—one that is beneficial for people, the planet and society?

First, let’s liberate ourselves from the idea that work is how we should be spending most of our time.

This may sound utopian, but the idea of a three-day working week has gained traction in recent years. Research shows that a shorter working week would not only decrease our carbon footprint, increase gender equality, improve our health and strengthen democracy, but it would also boost worker productivity. Those who work less tend to be more productive hour for hour, and they are less prone to sickness and absenteeism. All of us working less would overcome the interlinked problems of overwork and unemployment and mean that we all could lead more healthy and balanced lives—without there being any significant damage to the economy

Second, we should separate income from work, and provide all citizens with an income or a ‘social dividend’ that is enough to cover their basic needs. This income would be a set amount of money provided by the state, regardless of income or employment status, and is most commonly known as Universal Basic Income. UBI is currently being trialled in countries such as Canada, Finland, Holland and Namibia.

Contrary to popular belief, these trials—like the one that took place in Canada in the 1970s—have found that people who receive a basic income don’t spend all their time watching TV. Instead, they use the income in different ways to support their families out of poverty. Not only could UBI play an equalising role in society, it could also empower us to have greater agency over when we want to work and for what causes, and it could enable a wider range of people to engage in entrepreneurial, creative and innovative thinking. 

A basic income could be financed by raising income tax rates or through new taxes on wealth, land value or pollution. Renationalising public assets, or scrapping schemes such as Trident and lowering our spending on the military and defence, could also generate the required resources.

Third, we need structures that support people to find, develop and share their gifts and skills for the positive benefit of themselves and society. The rise of automation is set to transform work, and with the right political policies and support this could liberate us from menial, manual jobs, enabling us to focus on doing work that expresses our true human capabilities: the ‘three C’s’ of care, creativity and craft.

Taken together, re-imagining work around these three pillars could have huge positive impacts for the wellbeing of society at large, and it could provide one of the keys to solving the mental health crisis of my generation. It could liberate us from unpaid internships, freelance contracts and bullshit jobs, and the anxiety and depression that so often come with them.

In this new future of work the economy could be something we engage with from a place of security and safety. Work could be something we choose to do as a way to share our ingenuity, our creativity, our skills and our passions to enrich the lives of ourselves and others. It could fulfill all those psychological needs identified by the WHO like social contact and collective purpose, without being the most important thing in our lives.

It’s time to create a new vision for the world of work: to make work something that supports and nourishes our mental health and the world around us. 

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