Overwork is bad for mental health – but so is no work at all. Work expert Professor Brendan Burchell of the Cambrigde sociology department says that we should be looking at a part-time future
Millions of UK lives have changed significantly in the last few weeks – even those who have not been infected by COVID-19. Three of the most widespread sudden changes for many working age adults have been:
1. The loss of a job or a large reduction in working hours;
2. A shift in the place of work from the office to homeworking;
3. Living in social isolation alone or with other members of one’s household (adults and children) who are also spending more time at home.
We know from the literature that any one of these can send symptoms of anxiety and depression soaring; the combined effects of these changes is unprecedented and unexplored.
There are already countless newspaper and social media stories telling of the strain that this crisis is putting on individuals and families. It is likely that many of these problems will be exacerbated over the coming months – Donald Trump and his supporters are the only ones suggesting that a return to normality is coming soon.
Deteriorating levels of mental health in the population will not just cause individual misery, but the research to date on unemployment suggests that this will likely lead to knock-on effects for the family, particularly the spouse and children.
We may also see increased breaches of social distancing rules or civil unrest like the protests that are being whipped up in the US.
The Chancellor’s plans to save jobs through the furlough scheme are largely aimed at the financial fallout of the pandemic: the desire to avoid widespread hunger, destitution and financial insecurity, while also recognising the importance to overall wellbeing of the ability for businesses to recover quickly.
Why employment matters beyond income
As social scientists have found repeatedly, in different countries and different demographic groups, the loss of the wage only explains a small fraction of the very large mental health deficit associated with unemployment and economic inactivity. Put another way, you are more likely to go bonkers with lots of money and no job than with a job and no money! Psychologists have long recognised that the ‘incidental’ aspects of having a job such as:
are much more important for our wellbeing than money alone. A lot of writers enjoy telling us about the bad stuff that happens at work like stress, bullying, insecurity, Bullshit Jobs, etc, but our evidence suggests that a job has to be pretty bad before it’s worse for your sanity than no job.
And it has proven almost impossible to find substitutes for jobs that fulfil all the functions of paid work; hobbies, voluntary work or workfare just aren’t substitutes for jobs. While some post-work philosophers dream of a world where work is largely eliminated, I personally don’t see any evidence that it would be utopian. We probably benefit from the crutch of a regular job even more in times of crisis, like now.
So, it seems, we have a Catch 22 – in a crisis people are even more likely to start crawling up the wall without a job, but in this crisis there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. And this situation is likely to last for many more months of the current pandemic.
A possible solution: short-time working
Fortunately there’s a solution to this paradox, and one that’s being taken seriously in other countries but unfortunately not the UK: short-time working.
The hastily-introduced scheme to protect jobs in the UK, furloughing, encourages employers to retain some or all staff where:
- there is essential work to be done, for example health and emergency workers;
- the work can be done at home, as with many office workers;
- the work can be done while maintaining safe distancing, such as some agricultural jobs.
Other employees will be stopped from working, and either be paid to stay at home or lose their wage too. And if they are furloughed, then it is a legal requirement for them to do no paid work at all.
How does short-time working operate?
Other European countries, such as Germany and Austria, have traditionally used short-time work programmes to deal with economic crises. Employers can reduce the hours of employees, typically with some compensation from public funds to mitigate some of the loss of hours. This has several benefits over the all-or-nothing job shedding being used in the UK.
Employees retain their attachment to an employer, and have more certainty over their future.
It is easier for employers to vary their volume and type of labour power as the pandemic peaks and then we start an exit strategy.
Employees can be redeployed depending on their skills, adaptability of the job to homeworking or safe-distancing, or the pre-existing health conditions of the employee. Older readers will remember the miners’ strike in the 1970s when Ted Heath put most of the country on a three-day week to preserve the dwindling coal needed for the UK’s electricity. Far from being a time of misery, this is looked back on many as a rather pleasant time of fun and frolicking.
Turning back to the psychological functions of paid work, just how much employment is needed each week to preserve the mental health of employees, and at what point does their wellbeing drop to be closer to those who are unemployed?
The surprising finding from a University of Cambridge team of social scientists and statisticians is that increasing individuals’ hours of work from zero to just eight hours a week provides a large boost to their mental health, and there is little or no further psychological benefit once you go over one day a week.
The lesson for government strategy is clear – where possible keep everyone in paid work; even one day a week will keep more of us sane in these volatile times. I’m probably preaching to the converted here; many Idlers have already worked out for themselves that work has its attractions – but preferably in small doses.
Brendan Burchell is a Reader in the Social Sciences and a Fellow of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. His career has been spent researching the effects of good jobs, bad jobs, unemployment and idleness on our wellbeing.
If you are interested in the ideas in this Blog, here’s some more detailed material