Lockdown is to blame for the workshy

Sorry to be parochial, but I want to take a look at a situation that is particularly exercising the press at the moment, and it has nothing to do with Photoshop but does involve the inherently workshy.

In the UK, lockdown left many legacies, none of them positive. Currently, the proportion of the working-age population actually in work has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Since Covid, the number of people off work, due to sickness, has gone up by 700,000, and now stands at c.2.8 million.

Two-thirds of incapacity benefits currently involve mental or behavioural disorders, and 20,000 claimants are being added to this figure each month. The backlog of people waiting for mental health treatment on the NHS is a whopping 1.9 million.

In the UK, incapacity benefits cost c.£30bn a year (€34.5bn)
In different European countries, the approximate figures are:
Germany: €45bn.
France: €35bn
Netherlands: €15bn
Italy: €20bn
Sweden: €4bn
(OECD)

Did lockdown really make a sizable chunk of workers mentally ill? Did staying at home for two years open our eyes to the futility of paid work, or are we just showing acceptance of longstanding dissatisfaction and mental turmoil? Or are people possibly lying about the state of their mental health?

65% of British adults say they have experienced some form of mental health problem, and there certainly seems to be less stigma around discussing our mental health since lockdown. But have we medicalised unhappiness into depression, with a corresponding percentage of workers leaving the workplace simply because they are dissatisfied? Has PTSD replaced what was previously known as just having a bad time?

Any benefits culture gives the perennially workshy an opportunity to game the system. For two years we were told it was dangerous to leave home, so it is not surprising that young people, in particular, forced to lead their lives online, are scared stiff of fully engaging in the traditional workplace.

Ironically, often the best cure for the symptoms of depression is a job. Hardliners will say that if someone is pretending to be sick, they should be forced to find work and if they are clinically anxious, the worst thing to do is stay at home and stagnate, whilst also being a drain on society.

However, of these working-age adults, 8 million (20%) live in poverty. A life on benefits is not fun. Three million adults, aged 16-24 and six million, 24-64, are ‘economically inactive’, with 9.25 million adults drawing £88bn of benefits a year.

But, surely we are hard-wired to want to do something positive with our lives, to contribute, to add value? There can’t possibly be nine million shirkers in Britain, but there are millions who cannot physically or mentally take part in a dodgy labour market, unsupported by a crippled health service (see mental health backlog above) and jobs supported by mainly useless zero-hours contracts.

This kind of work, for little more than you can earn on benefits, is often, in itself, alienating, micro-managed and bad for your physical and mental health. ‘Good work’, offering a sense of self-worth and control, is the privilege of a lucky few.

Trade unions, traditional protectors of low-paid workers, are currently weak in Britain, and so there is no one who is positively/actively looking after vulnerable workers, but there will be an election held sometime later this year and if, as looks likely, labour wins, they have a ‘new deal for working people’, intended to make sure worker rights are enforced properly and they want to enable trade unions to recruit and launch a system of fair pay agreements, which may go some way to making work seem more attractive.

Labour has its roots in trade unions and their election could facilitate the cutting of economic inactivity, not by making life harder for ordinary people, but by stimulating the proliferation of ‘good’ work.

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