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
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.
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
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.
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
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.