Work and mental health

By Glen

Work expresses our humanity, enriching us as social individuals, making us human. Paid work is part of what makes us human, giving us benefits, that can also be utilised in activities such as leisure and study. Work is always changing, being continually in flux. The Monday – Friday working week is a memory, with new forms of employment being the norm. Concurrently we see a growth in work related mental health disorders.

Let’s have a look at these, trying to make sense of what this means in current Australia.

Looking at the Safe Work Australia document, Work Related Mental Disorders Profile 2015we see signs of work being a causal factor for stress in people’s lives. This research being the most comprehensive study in recent times covering the years 2008-09 to 2012-13. In this period work related mental stress was clearly the main cause of compensated work-related mental disorders.

Whilst acknowledging that the figures produced are descriptive, not ascertaining the specific cause(s), it indicates something about work that’s not good for the mental health of workers. Around 6 percent of annual workers compensation claims in this period relate to a work related mental condition.

In this period around 90 percent of claims involving mental conditions relate to mental stress in the work place. Of these the largest identified category pertained to work pressure, making up 32 percent  of claims.

Further costs show workplace absenteeism, regardless of the cause, costs around $7 billion annually. Other figures cited talk of 49 percent of Australian employees being stressed, costing around $10 billion annually. Whichever figures you wish to cite, there is clearly a problem.

We’re finding new areas of work that cause stress. Hot Desking is an example, where employers have decided that office space can be better utilised by workers not having their own desk, rather sitting where they can find a space. Apparently, more firms are looking at this approach. Research shows this is having a detrimental impact on affected staff. Instead of having your own desk where you’re comfortable, familiar with it, possibly decorated with photos of loved ones and other items that make a worker feel they have some stake where they work, Hot Desking further reduces their ability to feel valued.

How the workplace is laid out can be a factor in work related stress. It’s surmised if a workplace is aesthetically attractive with natural materials such as wood and stone, added to them plants, with workers having their own desks; workers are more relaxed and productive. True ?

How do workers get supported, looked after in contemporary Australia? If work related stress is increasing, what is done to tackle it?

Concepts like wellness can be put up as a panacea for stressed workers. Some employers believe the best way to support employees in reducing/dealing with the stress of work is providing Yoga, or other activities deemed as wellness. However, we must note this is usually provided to employees outside of their working hours, often with financial costs.

At best, this employer approach seems like a placebo, not addressing the cause of the problem, even what it does barely tinkers with the edges. If a worker is stressed because they have no control over their hours or duties, how much benefit is paying your employer for a ½ hour yoga class conducted after you’ve officially signed off the day?

With levels of unionisation similar to what it was at the handing down of the Harvester decision back in 1907, the traditional option of workers uniting to protect themselves seems strangely out of place in contemporary Australia. Even concepts like work place consultation, no matter how basic and limited, are no longer valid.

We are seeing the return of piece work, dressed up with sexy terms like gig economy. One area for example is the jobs impacted by the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Many existing services will disappear, along with the jobs of their staff. In place it’s posited new ‘job’s will pop up with workers being required to provide their own transport, be available at a range of hours hoping for a phone call: no phone call, no work for the day. Good for your pocket: good for your mental health: you’d think not.

Compounding this let’s look at the hours worked. We saw in March 2017, 17 percent of all hours worked were by part timers. There’s been a drop in secure full time employment, coinciding with a rise in under employment. Around 8 percent of the workforce is considered underemployed. Part timers can range in their working hours depending on the employers requirements, with hours worked is some weeks being as low as 8 hours, with the possibility of working up to the high 30’s in other weeks. It seems to show that irregular/inconsistent working hours can make you time poor. What say do workers have over the length and intensity of the working day?

In November 2015 the ABS recorded 20.1 percent of the workforce was in casual employment. This figure has been quite constant since the 1990’s. Similarly it is estimated 30 percent  of the workforce is part time. Around 5 percent of the workforce is on a temporary contract(s). Adding to the equation there is further impetus to make the retirement age, 70.

Wages are currently stagnant, moving at a level like the 1960’s. Weak growth especially over the last four years, accentuate this. Wages being the primary source of household income; if they’re not rising, households feel the pinch more, increasing stress related to work.

The words of Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission Judge, HB Higgins, back in 1913, that working time is time purchased by the employer who has exclusive rights to it, certainly still ring true in 2018.

Do we work to live, or do we live to work? We are seeing many jobs replaced by new technology, including robots and artificial intelligence. These new productive forces should assist in developing new productive relations. Work will remain a reality, albeit in changing forms.

When do we reach the stage in human progress where instead of work being a means to live, as well as creating power and profits for others, work becomes important in creating a social wealth? In that world where automation has replaced much of the mundanity of work, this should allow people more time to focus on leisure, or enhancing their intellectual capacity. What is considered fixed and permanent, what is deemed human nature, is always changing.

One can’t deny that in societies where there is an economic reward for work, people will work for that sort of gain. But if the paradigm changes and the incentive for work are rewarded by social responsibility, pleasure in the quality of your work, also prestige and praise for your work, would work be less stressful? If work no longer is purely a means to live, but something enjoyable, will mutual regard one day supersede economic reward as the basis for work?

Human nature is not constant for all time. Individualism, greed, are not biological features, but more so reflects the society we exist in. In a society premised on different social ideas, with work having a different meaning, we may we no longer have concerns like work place stress.

So in closing, may I ask; is work good for your (mental) health?

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