Spring is upon us, Australia’s collective well-being is booming, and our economy is the envy of the world. Yet far from enjoying the fruits of their labours, many workers – even those in well-paying professional jobs – are living in fear that their livelihoods may disappear.
Whether it be the post-Global Financial Crisis unemployment horror stories filtering through from overseas; the rapid rate of technological change that has meant workers can be “on tap” 24 hours a day, or the rapid pursuit of material benefits, many workers fear that the only way they can stay afloat is to work harder and longer – often at the expense of their health.
I’m in my mid-30s but I feel like I’m 50.
Psychologist Dr Tim Sharp says work-related angst in Australia is very real. He says the GFC has shaken the confidence of many workers, particularly in industries such as banking, but he also says the modernisation of the workplace means we no longer have “jobs for life” and people are struggling to adjust to this new reality.
On call: new technology means workers can have little downtime. Illustration: Michael Mucci.
Edward* is 40. He has two university degrees, a loving family, and what appears to be the textbook life he craved as a young boy. But beneath the rosy surface lies a man sweating about job security. The operations manager for a global company rarely switches off from work, toiling from home at night and on weekends, juggling his smartphone and laptop and waking in the small hours to answer phone calls from clients. He often can’t sleep because work issues pull him from his slumber.
Edward rarely engages in social activities or sport but tries to spend any spare time interacting with his two young children and partner, who works part time. He contemplates scrambling out of his work-heavy hole but can’t fathom an exit plan. He says he has already made one career switch and doesn’t fancy another.
“I know it’s not sustainable for myself or my family to keep working around the clock and fixating on the fear that I could lose my job, but if I say no to my boss when he needs me, he’ll find somebody who will do it,” Edward says. He admits his fears were heightened after he watched three of his close work colleagues made to move on from their jobs in recent months.
The fear of job loss is real, even in Australia’s reasonable economic climate, and researchers say there’s mounting evidence of mental health issues arising from organisational downsizing and global economic crises.
Tony*, a 30-something finance worker, says he works about 70 hours a week to ensure he maintains his “high performer” status. He’s also responsible for implementing downsizing operations and sees firsthand scores of colleagues increasing their work hours and input and/or turning to alcohol to cope with the fear of being the next worker asked to leave.
“I know that if I overperform and stay ahead of the pack, I’ll be reasonably safe, though you can never really be sure of these things,” Tony says.
But he feels battered by the consistently long hours, work-related travel and reliance on alcohol to alleviate stress. “I’m in my mid-30s but I feel like I’m 50 actually, I honestly do.”
Those employees left standing in organisations or industries facing cuts often start to show signs of mental and physical stress as they fear being the next one to find themselves unemployed, according to studies cited by University of NSW psychiatrist and Black Dog Institute researcher Dr Samuel Harvey. Some push themselves into productivity overdrive simply out of fear of job loss.
Downsizing may increase sick leave and the risk of death from cardiovascular disease in employees who keep their job, according to a paper in BMJ (the former British Medical Journal). The results of the study, conducted in four towns in Finland during a severe economic decline from 1991 to 1996, were so stark, the authors called on policymakers, employers and occupational health professionals to recognise that downsizing may pose a “severe risk to health”.
There was a clear rise in suicides after the GFC of 2008, with almost 5000 more suicides – primarily men – across 54 countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia in 2009, according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal.
“We know that just being in fear of losing your job is also associated with poorer mental health. Those people who feel less secure in their job have higher rates of mental health symptoms and lower rates of mental well-being,” Harvey says.
Goldman Sachs boss Lloyd Blankfein recently highlighted what he saw as a mismatch between Australia’s economic status and the attitude of its workforce.
“I’ve been coming here for a long, long time and during the past two decades of growth, growth, growth, people are always distraught, overwrought, wringing their hands about how horrible things are and, to my observation, they don’t look that bad.”
Real or imagined, a perception of job losses affects productivity, stress levels and family life, and researchers are trying to find evidence on which tools are best to help people deal with their fears, such as e-health and resilience programs supported by employers.
“What drives that perception is sometimes reality, but it’s sometimes more about that individual and their way of viewing the world and their place within it. Some people are just worriers and we know that’s a risk for mental health problems. But there’s a lot of work going on now about whether you can help people build their levels of resilience and teach them techniques to alter the way they view some of these risks and the extent to which they ruminate on them,” Harvey says.
Employers are being urged to help with the mental health of workers via the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance partnership between business, community and government. One of its aims is to find out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to a mentally healthy workplace.
“Sometimes [job losses] have to happen, but certainly if people pause and think about the way they happen and the support given to individuals, we might be able to prevent some of these problems,” Harvey says.
Sharp says the first step for workers is to seek information from their employer if they fear job loss to ensure they know what they’re dealing with. Sometimes they can improve their performance, but other times, it may be beyond their control while an organisation seeks to downsize. For employers, they should reassure their workforce as best they can, to give employees a sense of security and stability.
Job loss was real for Sydneysider Nigel Marsh, who found himself “fat, 40 and fired” in 2003 and was so affected by the upheaval, he wrote a book about his experience, which is poised to become a TV series.
“For me, it was absolutely devastating,” Marsh says. “I was a 40-year-old man with four children under the age of five and a wife who didn’t have a job, so I thought my life was over. I thought I may never work again. It was totally devastating.”
Marsh says he had an inkling of impending doom when talk of a merger involving the company that employed him began. Since the release of his book, he has received harrowing emails about people’s job-loss stories in a society that he says glorifies overwork.
“You get this thing where people say, for example, ‘Oh Amanda, she’s so wonderful, she’s always the first in, she’s always the last to leave, she works every weekend, and she never takes any of her holidays’, and you go, ‘Well why are we holding that up as heroic when it’s moronic or tragic?’ It shouldn’t be held up as, ‘Oh yippee!’, it should be seen as sad. Let’s give her some help,” Marsh says.
While his situation felt disastrous when it happened, the job loss gave him time to change his life. He took a redundancy package, wrote his book, lost weight, got fit, gave up alcohol and became more present in his family’s life. He says any anxiety he has about job loss is now manageable.
“I’ve embraced the fear. I’ve tried to turn anxiety into anticipation. Until 40, I was taking a conventional approach to work; since then, I’ve been trying a different route,” says Marsh, who now works in the corporate world, as well as being the author of three books, founder of the Sydney Skinny swim event, and a public speaker.
The key for employers to help in the mental health of their workers is to share information and ensure there are no surprises, says the University of Sydney’s Workplace Research Centre director, Professor John Buchanan.
“If people get advanced notice, it makes a huge difference to their capacity to adjust and minimise the negative impact,” he says.