Rising Unemployment Is Making Us Depressed. But We Are More Than Our Work

We must separate our self-worth from our productivity.

by Harriet Williamson

17 March 2021

(Adobe Stock)

The rising tide of pandemic-driven unemployment and job insecurity is having a profound effect on the country’s mental health, according to recent research that links precarious work and redundancy to symptoms of depression.

A Mental Health Foundation report, released last month, found that 70% of UK adults feel that unemployment or a job loss would have a negative effect on their mental health. Nearly half (45%) of UK adults associate unemployment or redundancy with ‘loss’ and a quarter with ‘trauma’.

Is it any wonder that unemployment hits us so hard, when our self-worth and identity are so inextricably bound up with our work? From labelling people on benefits as ‘scroungers’, who don’t deserve help or respect because they are seen as ‘unproductive’ members of society, to the pressure to monetise everything, turning our hobbies into ‘side hustles’, the insidious idea that we are only as valuable as our productivity is rampant in western societies.

“Contemporary capitalism offers us little alternative to finding recognition and meaning besides our work and often expects us to excavate our own personalities and emotional states as part of our jobs,” says Amelia Horgan, author of the forthcoming book Lost in Work. This ‘excavation’ can mean that redundancy is an identity-shattering experience. At the very least, if you are constantly told that your worth is based on your work, experiencing a job loss will inevitably feel like a deep personal failure. It’s easy to see why this leaves so many of us susceptible to depression – and that’s even before the loss of income and financial security is factored in.

Precarious employment, which could be snatched out from under us at any time, is also anxiety-inducing and the high-stakes threat of job loss leaves workers with little power to resist working practices that are inherently harmful. “Capitalist work is arranged in such a way that workers do not typically have control over how they work,” Horgan points out. “Whether it’s the temporal cruelty of zero-hours contracts, where workers are unable to plan their non-working lives in favour of maximum flexibility for their employer, or the drive to squeeze as much work as possible out of each employee on a given day, this lack of control can have direct and indirect harms on the physical and mental health of employees.”

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 1.74 million people were out of work at the end of last year; not only is this the highest figure for five years, but it’s expected to rise again, to 2.2 million by the end of 2021. The government’s furlough scheme has protected some jobs, but not nearly enough – as the 90% rise in applications for Universal Credit since March makes abundantly clear. Black and brown people have also been disproportionately impacted, with the unemployment rate varying from 4.5% for white people to 13.8% for Black people.

Despite the fact that businesses up and down the country have been closed for the best part of a year, and whole industries have been wiped out by an unprecedented global event, it is not just individuals who blame themselves for job loss; a Kings College London survey recently found that nearly half of people believe those who lost their job during the pandemic were likely to have been underperforming. So pervasive is the ideology that suggests work makes people good and good people work, that rather than blaming bosses, the government or the global economy, 50% of the population believe people are unemployed because they are lazy.

To know where this rhetoric comes from, we only have to look upwards, to our government. The pandemic has thrown into stark relief the way in which the Conservative government places more value on our ability to generate income than on our lives. Boris Johnson has consistently prioritised the economy over human life, repeatedly ‘locking down’ and closing retail and hospitality venues much too late.

The now-discredited ‘herd immunity’ strategy relied on the idea that we should just allow older, more vulnerable people – those less likely to be in work – to perish from Covid-19 in order to keep life going for the working population. The approach was allegedly succinctly summed up by one senior Tory as: “Herd immunity and let the old people die”.

Last summer, chancellor Rishi Sunak encouraged people to pile into restaurants and pubs with an offer of 50% off their meals. In addition to costing the government at least £522m, a study from the University of Warwick found that Eat Out To Help Out had ‘subsidised the spread of Covid-19’, contributing to a rise in new infections of between 8% and 17%, which researchers say ‘accelerated the second wave’ in Britain.

Not satisfied with putting people’s lives at risk in order to boost the restaurant sector, cabinet ministers including health secretary Matt Hancock urged people to return to work in August, saying there was “little evidence” that the virus was transmitted in offices.

The Tories’ obsession with work and the economy has meant they have presided over the highest death toll in Europe and the fifth-highest worldwide.

For some, the last year has simply been a nightmare. The financial ramifications of job loss and the mental health impact of unemployment and isolation have made it hard to get by – let alone see any silver lining.

But for others, the pandemic has revealed fractures in the system and made society’s toxic attitude to work clear. By making it impossible for so many of us to keep up the performance of being busy worker bees, it has challenged us to question the narratives we have repeatedly been told. It’s given us time to think. Horgan believes that for some it has been a turning point.

“The exhortation to be productive at all times is something that is profitable to our employers more than it is beneficial to us as individuals,” she says. “Many have rediscovered the importance of rest and stillness rather than a manufactured busyness, finding alternative sources of recognition and meaning.”

The global pandemic has given urgency to the idea that we must challenge the capitalist narrative that only work makes us worthy; we matter as human beings, not as automatons solely tasked with making cold, hard cash.

Harriet Williamson is a freelance journalist and the editor of sulk magazine. 

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