How does work affect your mental health?

Alain de Botton’s new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,  is out today, which has got me thinking about work again.

Mental health in the workplace, and particularly its relationship to our sense of self and personal happiness, has been of great interest to me ever since I suffered stress-related illness a few years ago. It’s one of the main reasons I started Mindapples, and I’m very interested in applying the five-a-day concept in organisations to make mental wellbeing a mainstream part of our work as employees and employers.

One of my five-a-day is doing something I’m good at, so my work is very important to me – but sometimes it can be stressful and depressing, and I sometimes think I do far too much to be healthy. I twittered earlier today that I had to go into the office and do some Work, and I got a lovely reply from a guy in Edinburgh saying “i suspect you would be of better service doing more play, from the little i have seen of your contributions, you have a fresh mind” So maybe work isn’t actually what I’m good at? Maybe I should be playing more?

Curmudgeonly poet-librarian Philip Larkin once asked “Why should I let the the toad work Squat on my life?”, but later in life he returned to the same theme far more fearful about becoming someone who isn’t well enough to work:

Think of being them,

Turning over their failures
By some bed of lobelias,
Nowhere to go but indoors,
Nor friends but empty chairs –

No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:
What else can I answer,

When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.

For Larkin, work is bad but not working is worse. I’m still not sure. Is work good for us? And if it isn’t, why does the absence of work make so many of us feel useless and depressed? For my part, if I were to lose all my paid work, I hope I would remember that I can still do things I’m good at without getting paid for them – like developing Mindapples, and helping friends talk through their problems. As the recession bites and more of us start to face a world without work, how can we all become more resilient in a world where we can’t rely on our work to make us feel useful or secure?

So how does working, or not working, affect your mental health? And how can we change our relationship with our work so we get what we need from it, and remember that we are still useful, beautiful and whole with or without a job?

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3 thoughts on “How does work affect your mental health?

  1. The concept of work actually has two main separate aspects: having an activity/occupation and earning a wage.

    For most of us – myself included – earning a wage is an obligation. Obligations make us feel pressurised & frustrated because we cannot control them. Necessity and other people’s needs and choices control us when we work. Pressure and Frustration lead to depression/tension/anxiety/negativity.
    Eliminate the need for a wage and you eliminate the influence of work on depression.

    Activity/occupation is a necessity for our self esteem. But it does not have to be provided by work. Unpaid, voluntary activities are usually the most rewarding. So are creative endeavours. None comes with the obligation of earning, so no frustration and no pressure. Unpaid activities come with the possibility of choosing what to do and when to do it. That means control over our lives, emancipation and happiness.

    In an ideal world we would be free to pursue activities we love without feeling the pressure of doing something we possibly do not like for money. Again it is the obligation of earning that is at the root of the problem. Not work per se.

  2. work v play
    make the decision


    when teaching kids
    i didn’t sweeten the pill but separated out stuff:
    hard work needs to be done
    whereas there’s plenty of time for us to simply play

    somewhere along the line we europeans got this confused

    ask any experienced mother
    and they can make the distinction pretty much spot-on