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Issue 15: Our jobs are killing us

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From the editorIn this week's edition of SundayFocus we take a look at how the modern workplace affec
 

SundayFocus

October 27 · Issue #15 · View online
Your weekly wrap of national affairs, society, culture and politics, published by UnionsACT.

From the editor
In this week’s edition of SundayFocus we take a look at how the modern workplace affects workers’ mental health and the lengths to which employers go to do nothing about it. We also have some links to a few great longreads, including a piece on the class struggle at the heart of the Chilean unrest, plus more stories from the frontlines of the war on workers.
Now comes the bit where I ask you to do two things, please: 1. forward this issue on to all of your nearest and dearest and invite them to subscribe; and 2. if you don’t do so already, consider becoming a Solidarity Subscriber. Not only will you help keep SF going, you’ll get a bunch of other benefits too.
Enjoy the issue!
Guy Mosel, Editor

Our jobs are killing us
by Guy Mosel
Photo by Ian Espinosa | Unsplash
Photo by Ian Espinosa | Unsplash
If you’re sick of work, it might be because your work is making you sick.
The statistics are pretty clear: Half of Australians think their workplaces contribute to mental ill health. One in five Australian workers have taken time off work because they felt “stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy”. Mental health conditions account for nearly 40% of Allianz’s active worker’s compensation claims. Twenty per cent of of suicides in Australia are linked to work.
Our jobs are, quite literally, killing us.
In her piece on a 2018 study about the rise of perfectionism, Jacobin writer Meagan Day reports that the researchers identified neoliberalism and meritocracy as the sources of an increase in what they call “socially prescribed perfectionism”, writing:
“Neoliberal meritocracy … has created a cutthroat environment in which every person is their own brand ambassador, the sole spokesman for their product (themselves) and broker of their own labour, in an endless sea of competition. As Curran and Hall observe, this state of affairs ‘places a strong need to strive, perform, and achieve at the centre of modern life’, far more so than in previous generations.”
In his book Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford professor of organisational behaviour Jeffrey Pfeffer elaborates on this, identifying features of the modern workplace like job insecurity, unpredictable hours, productivity tracking software and unrealistic expectations as contributors to “anxiety and uncertainty, factors correlated with chronic and sometimes fatal ailments like heart disease, diabetes, and substance abuse”.
The phenomenon is present throughout the developed world. In 2016 in the UK, for example, 322,000 working days were lost due to industrial action; 12.5 million were lost to work-related stress, anxiety or depression.
It’s all your fault
Do businesses care about this mental health crisis? Inasmuch as it affects profits, of course they do.
Mentally unwell workers cost the Australian economy $12 billion a year in days off, “presenteeism”, and compensation claims. A mentally unwell worker is an unproductive worker and thus represents a problem that, in the interests of corporate profitability, must be solved.
But it’s a tricky balancing act. The reason why corporate profits continue to soar is that labour productivity has gone through the roof, a product of depressed wages, under-staffing and overwork. In other words, those things that are the source of the mental health crisis are the very reasons corporations are making out like bandits. What to do?
Admitting a structural cause is out of the question, of course, because that would be to admit that capitalism is toxic. Instead, employees are told that their illness is entirely the result of personal failings, failings that can be easily remedied with some mindfulness and a wheatgrass shot.
Enter “workplace wellbeing”, a relatively new concept that exists to provide cover for businesses who want to be seen to be doing something about the mental health of their staff but don’t want to actually make the fundamental changes required to fix it.
You know the kinds of things I’m talking about: free yoga classes; on-site gyms; healthy snacks from the subsidised cafe in the foyer; “empowerment” workshops; meditation sessions; access to counselling services. All shiny baubles intended to dupe employees into thinking that not only does their employer care about how they feel, but also how they feel is purely a result of bad personal choices. Like have McDonald’s for lunch or skipping spin class.
As mental health writer Emily Reynolds puts it, workplace wellbeing schemes mean that “businesses have plausible deniability when it comes to protecting worker mental health”. She continues:
“Presenting your workforce with a raft of apparently life-changing perks and encouraging them to ‘open up’ to managers and colleagues means that no actual structural reform has to take place, no money has to be lost, and there need be no acknowledgement of just how rooted mental ill health and distress is in the structure of work itself.”
In other words, it’s cheaper to convert the level two meeting room into a pilates studio and stick a few RUOK? posters up in reception than increase wages, hire more staff or reduce hours.
As for the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs, it may shock you to learn they accomplish four-fifths of not very much.
What’s the solution?
Simple: better pay, better conditions, fewer hours. In other words, restructure the economy in favour of labour.
This is, of course, precisely what unions exist to accomplish, and also precisely why conservative governments in particular are inclined to use a significant portion of their time in power delegitimising the movement.
Policies put forward by UK Labour and Bernie Sanders provide a model for how a genuinely left-wing government might help workers wrest back some control from capital.
UK Labour has a plan that would force boards to reserve one-third of seats for workers in order to combat “reckless corporate culture”, while it would also require large companies to give workers a 10 per cent shareholding.
Sanders’ plan makes similar recommendations, proposals that “would give millions of workers the type of workplace influence typically reserved for shareholders and executives”.
These on their own won’t be enough to undo the damage neoliberalism has wrought on the health of the working class, but they’re a start.
Read more
William Davies in the New Left Review argues that wellbeing “provides the policy paradigm by which mind and body can be assessed as economic resources” in a far more densely academic, but nevertheless excellent, analysis of this issue.
And Nic Murray in Jacobin looks back at the 1999 film Office Space and contends that the soul-deadening banality of working life depicted in Mike Judge’s cult classic was only a taste of what was to come.
In other news...
People power works! Again! Adani contractor GHD is in “crisis mode” after sustained attacks by protesters and internal dissent from employees about the company’s involvement with the Galilee Basin project. To date a total of 61 companies have ruled out working on the Carmichael mine.
Penny-pinching Forty million dollars. That’s how much Fair Work recovered in stolen wages from shonky employers last financial year – more than $2000 per employee. This information was reported in the same week it was revealed that law firms are expecting to be able to exploit vulnerable junior employees to avoid paying them fair wages. What’s the solution to wage theft? It’s not more Fair Work inspectors, but more, stronger unions who can enforce the law. Find out more here.
Leak pique While mainstream media outlets were congratulating themselves over the “Right to Know” campaign last week, others couldn’t help but point out that many of those same publications kept very quiet – or were indeed vociferous in their endorsement – when secrecy laws were passed in the first place. Bernard Keane in Crikey [$] says if journalists are serious about fighting back against attempts to punish unauthorised leaks, they should stop reporting authorised ones: “Imagine politicians not being able to leak against their enemies. Imagine them being told by a journalist, ‘I can’t run that, you’re always insisting leaking damages national security and the ability of government to receive frank and fearless advice, so I best ignore it.’”
The chilling effect Meanwhile the government’s attacks on whistleblowers and its liberal use of nationalist rhetoric – “How good is cracking down on dissent!” – appear to be having the desired effect with public servants increasingly reluctant to come forward.
Dutton likes to watch And if you’re still not concerned about the Morrison government’s authoritarian proclivities, Mike Seccombe’s story about Peter Dutton’s plan for a national surveillance network might have you changing your mind.
The war on workers ramps up At the behest of mining giants like Chevron and Woodside, Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter will bring forward legislative changes preventing workers from negotiating a pay rise for the entire duration of “greenfields” projects – potentially up to 10 years.
Rojava in ruins Turkey’s attack on Kurdish-run territory in northern Syria is more than just another horrific milestone in a conflict with seemingly no end, it’s the destruction of a radical and inspirational model of democracy.
Longreads
A brief, quasi-Socratic guide to keeping track of the Trump-Ukraine scandal
Chile’s class rage
The Obamanauts
Death is a good way to gauge who we think deserves to live
For your bookshelf
Dying for a Paycheck, by Jeffrey Pfeffer
Growing Up Queer in Australia, by Benjamin Law
The Politics of the Common Good: Dispossession in Australia, by Jane R. Goodall
Project Rainfall: The Secret History of Pine Gap, by Tom Gilling
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