Fuck Work: Our Jobs Are Still Killing Us

Another May Day won't stop our pointless jobs driving us insane.

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01 May 2014, 3:20pm

Photo by Simon Childs

The improving weather is probably making you consider quitting work for a summer ambling about in the sun, declining to check your account balance as you splurge your savings on cava, boat rides and stupid hats. But face it, you're not going to do that, because unless your parents own other people, you need your job even more than you hate it. Otherwise why the fuck would you do it? While images of muscular workers grimacing into blast furnaces don't really resonate in this country any more, your job is still surprisingly likely to rob you of your sanity, physical faculties or even your life. Happy May Day, everyone!

While workers getting aggy with their bosses have resulted in concrete gains over the years – which, in case you didn't know, is what May Day commemorates – people are still dying with their boots on, even if those boots have been replaced with some sensible office shoes from Next. Over the past couple of years there have been a number of high profile deaths as a result of people working too hard.

For instance, there was a Mita Diran, a young Indonesian copywriter who tweeted “30 hours of working and still going strooong” last December. She died shortly afterwards. Six months earlier, Gabriel Li – a 24-year old employee of PR agency Oglivy & Mather – apparently worked so hard that he had a heart attack at his desk; one of a reported 600,000 deaths a year in China that reportedly result from "work exhaustion". Then there was the sad tale of Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He was found to have died of an epileptic seizure after working 72 hours in a row at the investment bank. The coroner said fatigue may have been a trigger but there was no evidence it was and the seizure could have just happened.

As you exist in the real world, you might have heard of at least one of these deaths – but you probably don't realise that work is killing people all the time. Globally, the International Labour Organization estimate that work kills two million people a year, making it more deadly than war. In the UK, six people die every hour as a result of their current or past working conditions, according to health and safety campaigners. That’s 140 people a day. Or 50,000 a year. More than the number of people killed annually by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and dozens of times more than the number of drug deaths per year. So why don’t you see as many alarmist headlines or moral panics about it?

These numbers are a lot higher than the widely reported figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the official body in charge of counting the number of people killed at their workplaces. This is because the HSE only counts people killed at physical workplace premises, not the hundreds of people who die each year while working in the air, on the roads, or at sea.

Hilda Palmer, is chair of the Hazards Campaign, which was started in the 1970s to make trade unions care a bit more about health and safety. Sanely, she reckons that "no one should die at work" – but she also told me that deaths aren’t the only problem we have. “[People dying] is a huge issue but deaths are only the tip of the iceberg." What does the rest of the iceberg look like? "Illness, people dying from illness and people suffering." These kinds of iceberg are never particularly happy icebergs, are they?

"We have an absolute epidemic of work-related stress," she continued, "which is causing depression, anxiety and physical symptoms; heart disease, strokes and heart attacks. A couple of million people are suffering illnesses due to work and there's about a hundred thousand people injured at work each year." This isn't just bad news for employees – according to Palmer, 27 million workdays are lost every year "because of injuries and illness caused by work". It is, she rightly surmises, "a huge problem”.

Taking a look at some of the official figures, it turns out that 1.1 million people who worked in 2011/12 were recorded as suffering from a work-related illness. Of those, 80 percent were diagnosed with musculoskeletal disorders, or forms of stress, depression or anxiety. A recent report said that a third of workers suffer from "depression, stress or burn out". The economy has shifted away from heavy industry and manufacturing to one where loads of us sit at desks. The modern worker is less likely to lose limbs in the mechanism of a flailing machine (though that kind of thing isn't completely behind us). Instead, they lose the ability to sit up straight and pieces of their sanity as they wilt in the face of all-day screen glare.

It's not “health and safety" that is "going mad” – it's us.

Mulling the stresses of the modern work place, I decided to get in touch with Emile, a former colleague of mine who worked in the City for six years before jacking it in to go travelling. “I was in my late twenties, in a management role with a decent salary. Right in line with my ambitions," she said. "However, the dream didn't include 60-plus hour weeks and my best friend being my BlackBerry. It snuck up gradually. Ambition led to more responsibility, then naturally working beyond capacity. I was so desperate to succeed that I could never say no. And you can't go back, admitting defeat, opting for the nine to five. I got so obsessed with the race that I lost touch with what I was actually doing. Which, in the end, amounted to no more than shuffling emails within a make-believe industry based on fictional exchanges. Why was it all so urgent? I had zero job satisfaction.”

Even in the office you can hurt yourself physically, as my friend John found out while temping for a homelessness charity. “I got Repetitive Strain Injury working a crap data entry job as a temp," he told me. "Over time it has got worse and worse to the point where, not only can I not play music or things like that any more, I can't read a newspaper because of the pain. I was getting paid £6 an hour, while the agency was charging the charity £13. What was almost worse than the boredom was the complete futility of it. These were expensive advertising mailings asking for more money from past donors, partly at least so we could pay for more advertising to get more donors."

Perhaps the most annoying thing is that so much of the work we do is a total waste of time. Back in 2009, the man in charge of regulating the City, Lord Turner, slammed large parts of what it did as “socially useless”. If a member of the House of Lords can criticise the City – the spluttering engine of the UK economy – for being socially useless with a straight face, we're pretty fucked.

The thing is, taking some steps to get us to work less would probably be a political no-brainer, with 57 percent of people in favour of a four-day week and 71 percent saying it would make us all happier. Instead we have George Osborne setting the economic agenda with a full employment target. Ed Miliband's following suit, with a jobs guarantee – planning to spend tax money on government funded jobs for those who can't find work. I bet those jobs will be totally socially useful and not at all depressing. Don't get me wrong, unemployment is pretty miserable, but the terms of the debate are skewed. It's as if a job – any job, no matter how pointless it is – is the path to happiness.

Rather than full employment, how about we prioritise full enjoyment?

Some of the interviewees in this piece have been given false names to stop them getting fired for insubordination.

@jdpoulter

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