It's not Just Mental Health if it's not Just
Imagine you're in a relationship with a partner who:
Makes joint plans based on their schedule, forcing you to adjust yours
Expects you to meet all their needs without reciprocating
Blames and punishes you if you don’t meet their needs, even when it's impossible or unreasonable to do so
Controls your money and financial security without giving you access to theirs
If you complain or push back, tell you they love you, that you’ll never have it as good with anyone else, and that you’re just misunderstanding or imagining what you think are problems
If this is the person you spend the most time with every day, how mentally healthy would you be?
If your best friend was in this relationship, what advice would you give them?
You probably know where I’m going with this…
If you have a job, chances are you’re in exactly this kind of relationship…with your employer. And because almost everyone is in the same boat, we’ve accepted it as normal. Spending the majority of our days under constant stress, afraid of failure, without the power to make it stop – it’s no wonder that:
“More than half (59%) of American workers are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout, a notable increase over 2021 (52%) and on par with the levels reported in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic”
“Mental health negatively affected job performances of nearly half (46%) of the U.S. workforce in the past year — a significant increase over 2021 (34%).
(Source: 2022-2023 Aflac WorkForces Report)
“Employees who are burned out reported 22-times worse stress and anxiety at work compared with employees who aren’t. Burnout was closely associated with degraded employee performance, including 32% worse productivity and 60% worse ability to focus.”
(Source: Future Forum Global Survey)
It’s not “just stress”
Those stats are for people who self-reported being burnt-out. How many more kept silent due to stigma? How many didn’t even believe they were burnt out, that they were “just stressed” or “this is just how work is”?
It should go without saying that it doesn’t require reaching burn out to be sick. Stress – especially continuous stress – is medically associated with many diseases, and not just “mental” ones. As the medical doctor and trauma and addictions expert Gabor Maté says in his book, The Myth of Normal: “A signature marker of stress is inflammation. Inflammation is implicated in an extensive range of pathologies, from autoimmune conditions to vascular disease of heart and brain, from cancer to depression.”
In the same book, he quotes scientist Dr. Steven Cole as saying: “A theme that comes up over and over and again is this increase in inflammatory gene activity in people confronting a sense of threat or insecurity for more than a short period of time…the more stress or threat or uncertainty you’re exposed to, the more the body turns on this defensive program that involves more inflammation.” [emphasis mine]
Even before COVID, before working parents and online-schooled children were imprisoned together in their homes, before people either lost their jobs or risked their lives going to work – work in capitalist Western society was and is extremely stressful. The abusive, power-imbalanced, transactional relationship between employers-employees that is foundational to capitalism is emotionally toxic to our human natures that crave connection, affirmation, and mutuality. Add on top of that continuous job instability, financial insecurity, and unpredictable futures – these are powerful forms of the “threat or uncertainty” that lead to stress and mind-body illness.