Economists this week have suggested that we should be more like Europe in having a much shorter working week of around 20 hours. The Socialist Party (of which I am a member) demands just a 30 hour maximum working week as a transitional demand towards a socialist world. What reasons could there be for this? I am sure the obvious ones, such as people having more time and it freeing up the possibility to get some of the 1 million unemployed youth into work will be being discussed more openly in some of the press and on social networking sites and also in various left wing papers. These issues will have their place but is there a reason to consider this from a psychological perspective? Would it benefit society? How? Would mental health improve under these conditions? Would capitalism crumble under the pressure of people actually being happy in their work and home life?

The working week as it stands is one of the longest working weeks in Europe and the world. This has had implications that seemed obvious to post-industrial theorists and yet somehow hasn’t sunk in yet. This must have implications for society and as is suggested in the various articles, there would be financial benefits to having everyone working and therefore being able to significantly reduce the cost of the welfare state. That is another issue for far more capable analysts than I. What I am qualified (almost) to stand in judgement of, is the psychological implications and the therapeutic ones.

Unemployment and under-employment have huge implications for people’s mental health. People are happier when they are in work generally and often feel the gains of being employed in a very real way. It is a myth, that people who choose not to work and claim benefits (a FAR smaller number than the torygraph and the Daily Fail would have us believe), are happy and feel like they are enjoying life.  This is far from the case. Often people in these situations turn to alternatives to the gratification provided by having a happy life and a fulfilling job, with chemical means. Chemical means such as alcohol, nicotine or any other drug that affects the serotinergic pathways, which they all pretty much do in one way or another.

There are other implications linked with employment and general mental health wellbeing. Women are suggested to report depression far more often than men and one of the explanations (of many, some of which are discussed in another post and more will be after this) is that women continue to work in a domestic sense once they return home from work and without a break, this has a catastrophic effect on mental wellbeing. If young people do not work between 18 and 21 they are much less likely to work in later life and are more likely to develop a number of psychological pathologies. People who do not feel challenged or gratified in their jobs, also have a much higher report rate for mood disorders such as depression.

All of these things, as well as the financial implications play a part in pointing out that either a 20 or 30 hour working week would significantly improve not only the economy but peoples mental wellbeing generally as well. This would not just include people out of work currently achieving employment but also, people currently in work would be less likely to suffer stress related illness including heart attack and other mental health conditions.

This is all fairly obvious but I feel there is reason to discuss this in a real sense. There are clear alternatives to each of these things but purely from a mental health point of view, there is very little reason to have such a massive number of people suffering with mental health conditions and therefore unable to work. The estimated cost to the British economy alone for depression is £11bn a year, including loss of earnings due to suicide and time off work with mood disorders and prescription of anti-depressant drugs on the NHS. While this would certainly not be completely removed by the implementation of a 20 or 30 hour working week, it would reduce this amount significantly. So, benefits there for all to appreciate.

Since Thatcher’s Britain there has been a lost generation of people who have found access to work very difficult. For a better explanation than I can give of capitalism’s need for a surplus workforce see Liam Byrne, welfare and capitalism.

There is reason to believe we are facing another generation, at least, of loss but this will be an international one. This is going to ensure that recovery takes at least another generation beyond this one as it takes far longer to treat someone with depression than it would to prevent the circumstances resulting in depression. All it would take realistically is a fair chance for everyone to work on a decent wage and a decent standard of living to be provided for those incapable of work. Simple really and if they would implement this and other suggestions, we would be well on our way to a happier, more fulfilled society.

Following this post, I will be proposing a Marxist model of consciousness that will have a greater implication for discussion and mental health relating to work and life stress management but that is for another time. Feel free to comment below, I look forward to any comments.