Mental Health Under Neoliberalism – 5 Ways Work Drives Us Crazy

by Eleanor Penny

1 June 2015

“Working nine to five, what a way to make a living / Barely getting by, it’s all taking and no giving / They just use your mind and they never give you credit / It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it” -Dolly Parton

Everyone knows work is stressful. We’re not talking here just about labour that is creative or productive, but the World of Work in capitals – the thing that the vast majority of people are obliged to do to earn a wage, to survive.

Work-Is-Stressful. I-Am-Stressed-From-Work. As true today as it was for Dolly in 1980, it’s the familiar mournful dirge of working life. But, unjustly, little attention is the thought that work is stress. The practises of modern work necessarily leech off our mental health, as the relentless march towards increasingly precarious, affective and badly-remunerated labour is – according to the ruthless logic of neoliberalism – essential to maintaining profit margins.

If we understand work in terms of the way it is lived by workers; as depression, anxiety, stress and exhaustion, we reject the reactionary terms of the discourse which uses worker status as a shibboleth to divide the employed from the jobless, the immigrant from the fearful precarious worker. Waged work is not a guarantor of dignity. Hard graft is not a marker of moral rectitude. “It’s enough to drive you crazy.” It’s a parasite.

1. Work is stress.


We cannot talk about work without talking about the conditions of low-waged poverty – so often painted as necessary to maintain competitiveness and productivity. UK workers are experiencing the longest wage contraction since the 1870s, a squeezing fist whose grip only tightens with the rising prices of basic necessities. The loudly trumpeted employment statistics are bulked out mainly by work in low-paid sectors. The idea that work is a way out of poverty rings hollower every year; a bad joke in an empty theatre.

This political settlement of general impoverishment is one wrought in the anxiety of those who live it. Poverty – both absolute and relative – has been shown time and time again to hugely increase the risk of suffering from various psychiatric disorders including depression and anxiety. The testimonies of those on the front lines of austerity stand in grim confirmation of the World Health Organization’s studies on poverty and mental health. The everyday is transformed into a series of stresses undertaken to sustain life, to another to work day – navigating the dilemmas of whether or not to turn the heating on, which meals to skip to make sure your kids get breakfast.

2. Work is precarious.


Work has always been precarious; unstable employment proving a reliable weapon in the arsenal of tactics used to suppress wages and bring workers to heel. The thought goes that a worker who is one bad report away from destitution is a pliable worker who is less likely to demand better pay. But in recent years, the rise of short-term and zero-hours contracts has conspired with the programmatic disassembly of employment protections to ensure that this precarity is at the heart of the post-Fordist landscape. An increasing number of employers rely on short-term contracts, low-hours contracts and temp workers, and the level of ‘churn’ (job turnover) in the economy keeps on rising. And so, the precario has taken up the role as the new everyman – the worker at the beck and call of their contractor, engaged in a continuous process of self-surveillance and hyper-vigilance.

All this comes handsomely packaged as flexibility, personal choice, and as the rugged dynamism of a go-getting, hire-and-fire culture. In reality, such flexibility is experienced only by the employer, whilst the employed and the unemployed alike are engaged in the constant anxiety of wondering whether and when they will be able to find work, and how long they’ll be able to keep it. The stresses of this life are manifold and manifest. Unable to depend on an income, unable to budget for rent long-term, unable to plan for childcare (let alone retirement); workers live out this handy little money maker as anxiety and fear.

3. Work is all-encompassing.


Much has been made of the technological demise of the regular working week. As soon as communication and transport allowed workers to be contacted, summoned and dismissed at short notice, the nine-to-five grind was doomed. This is the flipside of precarity: a working timetable that, much like that of the unpaid domestic labourer, asserts itself as soon as you wake up. Better turn your email alerts off when you sleep.

We’re required to live mired in the anxiety of our constant readiness for work, so the stresses and coercive demands of work bleed into everything such that talk of a healthy work/life balance becomes a laughable tautology. Especially when the twin pressures of austerity and an ageing population push the relief of retirement further and further off into the distance. The ruthless hunger of work, the way it so readily chows down on any time we could call ‘free’, is common to the coke-fuelled city boy, the over-worked intern and the zero-hours contracted cleaner alike.

4. Work is affective.


Although talk about the move to a ‘knowledge economy’ is sometimes exaggerated, the truth remains that the service industry accounts for over 80% of all UK jobs. These jobs rely on workers to be able to manage other people’s emotions and needs; mobilising their own personalities, interests and emotions in the process.

Even in sectors where these demands would seem minimal at first glance, workers are required not just to do the job at hand, but to pantomime their enthusiasm for it. How many times have hapless jobseekers had to morbidly caricature the most basic parts of their own personalities in hope of employment – boasting of ‘passion’, ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘interpersonal skills’? The service worker becomes a type of emotional capital to mobilised – and, pending brief periods of recovery – consumed. We care! We’re fun! See how much fun everyone is having?!

As feminist theorists have pointed out, this type of emotional labour is particularly efficient at depleting any emotional reserves we have. Plastering economic transactions with layers of slap and tickle and polite smiles, we become exhausted, drained – and once again, at higher risk of depression.

5. Work is monotonous.


Criticisms of the world of work often focus – quite rightly – on its more obvious injustices: that it’s exploitative, under-remunerated, unremunerated, coercive, and a site which reproduces social inequalities. But little attention is given to one of the most defining features of work; that it is, for the larger part, simply boring.

The thought is unavoidable. It’s what makes work ‘work’. It’s the reason we teach our children the valuable life skill of sitting still and gritting their teeth through double geography on a sunny Friday afternoon; the reason we dream of retirement and live for the weekend. Listlessness, a feeling of the pointlessness of work, waning energies for hobbies and interests, totalising exhaustion. These are all-too-familiar monotonies. A whole constellation of symptoms so readily clustered into the familiar pathologies with which one in four adults struggle: anxiety, depression – the list goes on.

If this were the result of a parasite or a virus, we would close the airports and call an epidemic. Perhaps it sounds a little childish to indict work for being boring. But to pathologise the sheer brainache of work is to imagine the world otherwise. To wave a red flag, sound the alarm, and rally the troops because something is deeply, deeply wrong. It allows us to imagine a world in which a global surplus, and the automation of work promise an end to the drudgery of work, not simply its transformation.


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