Is work really good for your health?

4 minute read

It’s a truism trotted out again and again: work is good for us. But a paper from the Centre for Welfare Reform argues that only good work is good for your health and, in some cases, unemployment may be better for your wellbeing. Could a universal basic income be one solution?

Sian Harrington

Economic system

Working is good for our health and wellbeing. It helps build self-esteem and confidence, contributes to our happiness and rewards us financially. Being unemployed, especially for a long time, has the opposite effect. We all know this, don’t we?

A discussion paper by the independent research and development network Centre for Welfare Reform, UBI and Health, debates this view. In examining the potential role of universal basic income (UBI) – income paid to everyone on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement  – author psychologist Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl states that only good work is good for your health. Bad work is bad for your health and unemployment can be good for your health. This, she says, is based on decades of empirical health data.

In Western societies in particular the norm is built around the work ethic. “Paid labour is considered morally superior to unpaid activities, and it is assumed that nothing can be given for free, as the lack of economical incentive to perform or participate would constitute a moral hazard and enable individuals… to resort to immoral idleness,” says Fagerlind Ståhl.

The idea that work constitutes a source for contributing, performing and self-esteem is to some extent justified, she argues. “A job with fair work conditions may indeed have beneficial effects on health and enable resource gain in terms of money, skill development, social networks and self-efficacy.” It is equally true that unemployment generally is more detrimental to health than employment. However, she points out that several risks appear if you take a psychosocial approach, looking at individuals in the context of the combined influence that psychological factors and the surrounding social environment have on their physical and mental wellness and their ability to function.

“There are several risks within the psychosocial work environment for stress-related illness, and there is nothing inherently detrimental for health in choosing to not sell your time and effort for the production of goods, information or services under the directives of an employer, the market or customers. Whether work is good for health depends on the psychosocial environment at work and in welfare: the resources lost and gained at work, and the resources lost and gained when outside work and dependent on income replacement benefits.”

She points out that numerous studies have shown that individuals who work under high demands or experience low decision latitude or low social support are at a higher risk  from depression, exhaustion/burnout and cardiovascular diseases. Work-related stress is on the rise. In Sweden it’s the most common cause of absence. A Finnish study (Virtanen et al, 2005) showed that individuals with insecure employment contracts reported more symptoms of depression and exhaustion and lower self-rated health than unemployed, suggesting that unemployment in some cases is the most health-promoting alternative. “Hence, not all work is good for health and wellbeing, and in some instances even unemployment is preferable.”

Indeed, according to a study in France, health actually improved after retirement, contrary to the belief that work is health-promoting (Westerlund et al, 2009). However, there were some exceptions, individuals who had truly enjoyed their work and who experienced a deterioration in health when they retired. This work engagement and enjoyment is possible when work offers opportunities to make autonomous decisions, use skills and learn new ones, and to work in a social environment of trust, cooperation and respect.

Yet few interventions target the psychosocial work environment, says Fagerlind Ståhl, while organisations that focus on increasing efficiency and competitiveness risk intensifying work pace. Such approaches reduce time and energy viewed as ‘waste’, such as chatting with colleagues or trying new ways to work. The “speeding up” of working life also makes it more difficult for those with illness to return.

In addition, most countries’ welfare systems, in contrast, encourage fear, humiliation and isolation and ignore skills and development needs. These punitive systems are harming people’s health. Fagerlind Ståhl therefore argues that a universal basic income would help promote health.

“A universal income given to all individually and unconditionally would constitute a financial, psychological and social resource. The financial security of it would reduce the threat of temporary gaps with no salary or benefits. It would enable more people to participate, contribute and engage in fulfilling activities. Socially it is likely to lessen the stigma of unemployment and enable the building of social networks and sources for social esteem outside work. This would tip the jigsaw towards health, rather than illness.

“ I believe it is time to discard the comfortable and convenient myths – we cannot afford not to. Work is not by default good for your health and wellbeing, and welfare could be organised so that it is rehabilitating and motivating without risking free-riding and immorality. An unconditional, universal, individual basic income is likely to be the first step towards a future where all are able to accumulate health and knowledge and to work with what they find most rewarding, irrespective of the pay.”

Published 6 March 2019

Not all work is good for health and wellbeing, and in some instances even unemployment is preferable

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