Unemployment and Mental Health: Redux

May seem like an exaggeration but it can be this bad.

I’m having a bit of a bad mental health day myself but I’m going to push through it so I don’t feel worse. If I don’t write anything then I’ll probably feel (ironically) that I’ve wasted the day doing “nothing”. Deep down I know that the entertainment I consume, the exercise I get, the things I read, the people I interact with and make laugh isn’t “nothing”.

But whether it is the time in which you are unemployed or just our free time, many of us feel compelled to keep ourselves in some sort of perpetual check. Are we doing enough? Being enough? What did we do all day? What are we going to do all day? Is it enough? Is it ever enough? I nervously said hello to someone when I meant bye. Is my life over?

While I don’t have the answers to most of those questions, I think the last one is probably (probably) no. But in any case asking ourselves whether we are ever enough and whether we’re living up to our potential seems rational to me. It isn’t necessarily unhealthy to wonder whether we could be doing more to improve our lives.

What is unhealthy (or at least can be) is putting all of our eggs in one basket. Thinking that, for example, that work can save us from our otherwise tedious, confusing and lonely lives. Ultimately, what’s going to save ourselves from ourselves is (wait for it) us. We are the ones most in control of ourselves after all, though the people around us who give us the necessary feedback to know whether we are fucking up or maybe just maybe doing things are vital as well.

If having free time can be so crushing and anxiety-provoking in our current culture then it makes sense why people are so afraid of unemployment. Besides the obvious economic consequences of being unemployed there are the much less seen and discussed problems of emotional punishment from society for being without a job.

Part of this societal reaction comes from the (false) perception that a job is inherently a purpose. Whether you have a shitty job or a job that makes you millions, makes your father happy or works just good for you, it has to be good. But as I’ve pointed out previously, there’s no reason a shitty job couldn’t be worse for you than being without a job at all.

Blog-renowned commentator Hugh recently let me know about another study that proves much the same. The study isn’t anything particularly remarkable but it does reaffirm that having a bad job can be just as bad (if not worse) than being unemployed and feeling like a failure. For some of us it’s hard enough to not feel like a failure every day anyways, especially when you struggle with depression and anxiety as well as other mental health issues as I do.

Just to briefly sum up the study:

The study monitored over 1000 participants aged 35-75 who were unemployed during 2009-2010, following up with them during the next few years about their self-reported health and their levels of chronic stress as indicated by their hormones and other biomarkers related to stress.

There was a clear pattern of the highest levels of chronic stress for adults who moved into poor quality work, higher than those adults who remained unemployed. Adults who found a good quality job had the lowest levels of biomarkers.

There’s a link to the study itself but I don’t really have the spoons to look it over today.

Suffice it to say, this constant pressure of trying to make everyone conform to the demands of “society” isn’t a good idea. Not the least of which because these pressures stem from unquestioned priors that not many people think about. People don’t think about the fact that bad jobs might do more harm because the Puritan work ethic is so built into us.

And by “us” I mean Americans. I’m not sure how it is in other parts of the world but here in the good ol’ US of A the mindset is that working is ultimately a net good…except when it’s actually happening. In which case people are immediately sympathetic to you being in a place where you want to get out and they often hope you get out ASAP.

When I’m working people will often say, “Getting out soon?” but when I’m unemployed people say, “Gonna get a job soon?” and people don’t see the contradiction. They don’t see that when folks are unemployed that society tends to treat them as people who are lower than people with bad jobs. But once people are employed in those bad jobs either because of a lack of good options, lack of personal capital or a lack of marketable skills, suddenly society wants them out fast.

As for the prognosis that “good work” can be a way to have people generally improve as opposed to putting them in the nearest shitty job, yeah, no duh. But on the other hand the sort of “good work” we have available four ourselves in a capitalist economy isn’t often the most appealing even if it may be better than the other options.

I will soon be pursuing a career in academia which is not exactly a golden ticket to success. It’s just a much better road that I want to pave for myself then being stuck in retail for the rest of my life. Ultimately, the 0.1% chance of doing something with my degree is better than the 0% chance I have of doing something with the job I hate.

It isn’t as if being a professor of philosophy is my dream job, but it’s one of the best jobs I can think of that suits me well and that I think I’d be pretty decent at. So despite my misgivings about college, academia and the world around me I’m going to give it a shot rather than keep doing nothing in this void of retail work.

A void where one minute people want me in as soon as possible.

And then once I’m in, they want me back home as soon as possible.


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