The puritanical work ethic to which our culture subscribes is a major cause of mental illness, says Nigel Leaney
Government proposals to change the incapacity benefit system are likely to hit people with a mental health need the hardest as they happen to be the largest group of people claiming it. Going on the stress/vulnerability model of mental health care it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the increased pressure to return to work will be damaging to those with a serious mental health need. Even if you are one of the “deserving sick” going through a work-focused interview to prove it, it is sure to be stressful – particularly if you have an illness such as schizophrenia or depression. It could further contribute to your illness.
The morality of work – and by implication the shame of not working – is hard-wired into our society. TV commercials praise the ability to continue working while you are ill – that is, with a little help from the endorsed remedy. The message to soldier on, not to give in to a pesky ailment, is loud and clear in our culture of overwork.
A “welfare officer” at a sheltered employment scheme criticised me once for not promoting the work ethic in a client who’d had enough of packing Rawlplugs nine to five, five days a week for a pittance. Instead he chose to stay at home, listen to his music, chat and drink coffee with his friends. Finally, he regained his mental health.
We can blame the Puritans who decreed that work led to spiritual rewards. As creatures born into “original sin” we needed to suffer in order to redeem ourselves. Hard labour became part of that ethic and underlies our attitude towards work today.
The work ethic is alive and well in such slogans as “nothing worthwhile is easy” or “if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working”. It is a lie. The human cost of our obsession with work is shocking.
In a recent Samaritans survey, Stressed Out, 36 per cent cited work as their major source of stress. Work-related depression and anxiety count for 13.4 million lost working days a year, more than any other work-related illness in the UK.
Bertrand Russell once said “the morality of work is the morality of slaves”. According to our cultural conditioning, we are undeserving of happiness, unless through blood, toil, sweat and tears.
So unhappiness becomes a necessary condition of being happy. And how crazy is that? Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service