Work provides many of us with so much more than a monthly or weekly pay packet, even if we don’t necessarily see it. At its most basic, work gives us a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning and a sense of routine and structure.
Work also provides us with a sense of community - for many, it provides the mainstay of our social interactions outside of our immediate circle of family and friends. For those who are without an inner network of family and friends, work gives us an entire social network. We socialise with our colleagues, we stay in touch with some of them long after we’ve moved on professionally. Some of my closest and oldest friends are people I met in the workplace shortly after graduating.
I don’t for one moment aim to mislead by suggesting that work is in any way similar to religion, but in some (many) ways, our work does provide us with the sense of belonging and purpose that going to a place of worship might do. In faith communities, of whatever denomination, people tend to get to know each other, get to know about one another and they go on to support one another as and when it’s needed.
But openly declaring religious affiliation isn’t so popular these days; like many other institutions, the Christian church has been rocked by scandal in recent times. Elsewhere, many of the conflicts and atrocities we see occurring globally are linked to fundamentalist beliefs or religious intolerance.
I was talking this week to some associates about the social breakdown that tends to follow industrial decline. Within the UK we can look at what has happened to communities in the North East that have been decimated by the decline of the fishing industry, communities in Wales that have been rocked by the closure of coal-mines and more recently, some towns that were hitherto deemed thriving due to the glory days of the financial services sector. The 2007-2008 financial collapse has seen those communities whither and nose-dive.
Several years back there was a spell of fly-on-the-wall TV documentaries showing what life is like in those towns, where entire families are dependent on their benefits cheques; to this date, I’m not sure if the purpose of those documentaries was to inform or ’entertain’.
Really, though? I’m not sure I can imagine what it must feel like to have no trade, no skill-set worthy of employment, and I’m pretty sure I too would take solace from the bottom of a bottle in those same circumstances.
The journalist Johann Hari explores the history of addiction in his book Chasing the Scream, and one thing that comes through loud and clear from his research is that addiction is far more likely to occur when people feel disconnected from a social group. Addiction is just one small aspect of mental illness, and mental health charities already estimate that as many as 25% of us will experience a mental health disorder in any given year, even if that disorder does go undiagnosed. We clearly have an epidemic of social disconnection going on right before our eyes.
Given the increasing craze for all things AI in the technology (and subsequently) the business sector right now, and the ongoing journalistic content about how AI and Robotics are going to steal all our jobs, why are we not having more conversation about the social impact of mass redundancy? Where is the government debate and thought leadership in this area, when it is so desperately needed?
The Universal Basic Income trials are great, but as I said before, work provides us with so much more than a pay packet. It provides us with our community, our sense of belonging, of contribution, of self-worth and of purpose, even if we may grumble about things and feel like we could be doing so much more elsewhere at any given moment.
It seems clear to me that more open dialogue is needed about the social aspect that work brings to our lives. Our workplaces are facing mass disruption and uncertainty and my overarching concern is that without active debate and conversation, job precarity will only go to fuel mental health issues, something that we need to avoid at all cost.
Hari, J (2015). Chasing the Scream - The first and Last Days of the War on Drugs. London: Bloomsbury.)