I'm looking at the mental health costs of bad employment, and suggesting how we might improve the conditions of employees.
Yes, I know: I don't have a real job. I'm one of Susan Johnson's 'other half', who give up income for vocation.
But a workplace riddled with anxiety, bitterness and regret doesn't help anyone. So I'd like to see this changed. Here's the text:
Can a job really be worse than unemployment? ‘Idle hands do the devil’s work,’ says the old saying.
The implication is obvious: when we’re unemployed, all our energies are channelled into destructive or wasteful pursuits, rather than useful ones. This is one of the reasons for the stigma of unemployment: the jobless are often caricatured as restless, dangerous folks, without proper outlets for their impulses. Unemployment is expected to be uncomfortable, riddled with ennui or self-loathing.
But recent research gives grounds for caution. According to new study by ANU’s Centre for Mental Health, a bad job can be worse than being on the dole. Having analysed data from more than 7000 respondents, over seven years, researchers discovered that those in the worst employment conditions were more prone to mental health problems than those looking for work.
What is a ‘bad job’? Obviously some of this is a combination of luck and personal eccentricity. As a philosopher, I’d make a poor infantryman – questioning orders is my reason for being. But what the Centre means by bad employment is something more specific: a combination of difficulty, demand, pay and authority.
Many ‘high-powered’ employees cope well with complex jobs because they have the power and resources to manage them. Alongside this, they have the status and wealth to make it worthwhile: esteem from colleagues and the general public, and plenty of cash and its trappings.
By contrast, some workers have high responsibility – for staff, budgets, outcomes – but not enough authority to do the job properly. On top of this, they’re frequently on call outside office hours, and permanently reachable by mobile phone, iPad, laptop. And the pay often does not match the effort, anxiety and intrusion of domestic life. So they face continual uncertainty in the workplace, interruption at home, and little wealth to justify the toll.
As a result, many of these employees are profoundly unsatisfied with their jobs. So much so that, for many, moving off unemployment into gainful work is worse than the dole, with its assumed idleness, and unsubtle forms of coercion and surveillance. This can easily lead to a Catch-22 scenario, where those with flagging mental capacities are unable to pursue more rewarding and secure jobs, which further diminishes their psychological well-being, and so on.
Meanwhile, their peers in better jobs often grow increasingly more capable, wealthy, confident. One of the foundations of an egalitarian society – social mobility – is thereby undermined. Folks cannot escape their ruts, and are stuck in jobs and lifestyles they loathe.
This is detrimental for organisations, as work practices suffer from staff distraction and tension. Demoralisation also hurts families, as stressed workers take their problems home. There is no easy solution. While wise businesses often pay handsomely for good staff, many will resist proper remuneration. The false simplicity of the bottom line blinds them to the deeper and broader costs.
But companies can certainly do more to avoid the economic, psychological and social costs of employment stress. Most obviously, proper training. Investing heavily in staff education in institutions and on-site gives employees the skills to properly manage their workplace. This also justifies giving them more autonomy: they’re not drones who need micro-managing, they’re capable employees whose authority ought to match their responsibilities.
The government also needs to get on board with this, investing in properly-regulated and subsidised education, so staff aren’t skimping on training before hitting the workplace. Education isn’t a ‘free ride’, it’s a long road to good employment and citizenship.
Perhaps more importantly, some companies need to seriously rethink their approach to flexibility and family. Working parents do not always avail themselves of flexible work arrangement, but businesses can do more to resource and promote family-friendly options. Good leaders promote diligence, but they also demonstrate the importance of balance: work smart, not just hard. Unhappy families are unhealthy for everyone.
Good guidelines on technology are also necessary. Companies often police the obvious threats, like pornography. But there are more subtle threats to well-being. Research confirms the deleterious effects of technological addiction on mental health and productivity. Others suggest telecommunications devices are fraying family ties. Organisations might formally flag the possible psychological and social consequences of their tools. Managers, bosses and colleagues might also show restraint, avoiding intrusions like after-hours calls or emails.
Of course tight deadlines can require frantic last-minute conversations. But unrealistic planning and poor communication are equally to blame, and can’t be fixed by badgering harassed staff.
Again, the problem isn’t hard work or ambition. It’s not even competition, which can be challenging, cultivating. It’s that staff lack the authority, security and rewards to make employment worthwhile.(Photo: Ronn)
Sometimes busy hands do the devil’s work too.