photo by Joshua Fernandez on Unsplash

Work forms a major part of our lives.  It provides so much and simultaneously so little. It pays the bills, provides some form of structure to the day or night depending on the type of work, and can form a substantial part of individual and collective identities. It can also be the source of misery, suffering, physical and mental maladies. For many people the former outweighs the latter.  In the United Kingdom, the Health and Safety Executive found that 1.8 million workers have lived experience of new or long term illness. I would aver the amount is higher. Many people whose wellbeing is affected by work go unrecorded. Presenteeism is the flipside of work-related ill health. Shuffling performatively into the office when snuggled under a duvet and recovering would be more appropriate, if not essential, for better long-term health.

So why is work bad for you?

Stress is conjured up as the main culprit in the relationship between work and well-being. It is an easy concept to grasp in many respects. There you are, in the office or wherever one works, deadlines are screaming at you, your whole body is coursing with various biochemicals, your heart is racing, you may feel sick and so on. Stress on a regular and repeated basis is far from healthy. A tranche of research clearly demonstrates that negative relationship between stress, poor wellbeing and serious long-term illness.

But as Wainwright and Calnan argued some time ago stress can be semantically overloaded to the point where it means absolutely nothing. One problem with the catch-all-term of stress is it ignores the actual mechanisms in the workplace that trigger stress. The deeper and more fundamental social relationships that give rise to those intermediate mechanisms also disappear from view.

The formidable Whitehall I and Whitehall II studies involving hundreds of British civil servants of all ranks and grades untangled many of those relationships. One early finding turned conventional thinking about stress upside down. The common assumption of leadership equals extreme stress equals heart attack is not so true. Those at the top are affected less than those at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy.  It turns out that lower grade workers are much more susceptible to cardiac disease.

Why? Stress is mediated by contingencies like control and reward.  For the senior manager stressing out trying to achieve a target, the rewards (whether financial or symbolic) counteract that stress. While for someone in a junior position daily stress becomes a daily physical and emotional grind.  The constant jolts and weathering of the embodied social being build and build leading to poor wellbeing.

The Whitehall findings are very powerful. They indicate common features of work where workers of different grades lack power and control over the organization and content of their work. But as the likes of Scambler have attested we need to take the search causes further.

The lack of power experienced by workers is not just a random feature of work. It arises out of the fundamental relations of capitalism.  It is how the whole structure of modern economics and society is set up. It is on that level we need to investigate work and wellbeing further.  The intensification of the worst aspects of work under neoliberalism add urgency to this task. Work is now subject to so many forms of monitoring, performance metrics and digital micro-management and precarity than ever before.

My own work points to how contemporary capitalism strips away meaning from our working lives. The capacities that humans possess for creativity and self-realization are alienated and distorted.  Work becomes a fragmented, endless and overwhelming series of targets offering little in the way of achieving something meaningful in life.

The above is a quick gloss of work and wellbeing.  In future posts I’ll pick up and expand on the points raised above in greater detail.