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Your sons and your daughters: mental health in the age of overtime

In a country consistently rated as one of the world’s most liveable, we’ve somehow developed a deadly disregard toward our own welfare. AAP/Joel Carrett

Your sons and your daughters: mental health in the age of overtime

This piece is republished with permission from Millennials Strike Back, the 56th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, and present an in-depth analysis of the challenges facing the oft-criticised millennial generation.


Weary working warriors of Australia, we need to talk about what your heroic long hours, your selfless overtime, and your lack of self-care is doing to our nation’s mental health.

I’m looking at anyone who associates the word “millennial” with young people who seem to feel entitled to the “good things” in life but are unwilling to put in the hard work to earn them; anyone who thinks being overworked and underpaid is a normal way to start your career.

Without a doubt, you’re going to experience some deep-seated resistance to what I am about to say. It’s not your fault; your work ethic has been conditioned with each and every pay cheque, and I’m about to undermine it. But you need to hear this, for the good of us all.

So, for the love of God, will you do yourselves the favour of putting aside your well-meant anxieties and hard-earned wisdoms for a minute, and just listen?

First up, let me lay out my privilege. I’m a PhD student currently investigating the genetics of mental illness – post-natal psychosis, to be precise – at the University of Cambridge.

I’m incredibly lucky: I’m studying at a university consistently ranked in the world’s top five; I have a partial scholarship and a well-funded lab; and my college graduate-student committee supplies me with a steady stream of free tea, biscuits and well-written magazine essays.

Before Cambridge I was a resident of Bruce Hall, the first (and best) residential hall at the Australian National University. Again a partial scholarship, again a very well-run and funded program, and again a student committee and college infrastructure that facilitated a warm, vibrant and welcoming community. I’ve done pretty well so far.

And now, my motivation for sticking my neck out: my mental health. It’s never been top notch, and it was probably never going to be (which is kind of how I ended up studying its inheritance and manifestation).

Both sides of my family have depressive tendencies, and I’m cis-female – which, depending on what you read, gives me a higher chance either of suffering depression or communicating that I’m depressed.

After several undiagnosed “rough patches” in my late teens and early twenties, I finally ended up on an SSRI medication after succumbing to a crushing state of depressive exhaustion in the first year of my PhD, most likely precipitated by the British winter. I currently function pretty well as long as I minimise sources of mental, emotional and physiological stress in my life. And there’s the bind.

I openly embrace my high-achiever-type neuroses, but my studies aren’t the biggest risk to my hard-earned homeostasis. You’d be forgiven for assuming so: not a week seems to go by without a Guardian article describing anxiety and depression in students. But data on the cause has been thin on the ground.

Fortunately, in 2014, the Graduate Assembly of the University of California, Berkeley, administered a survey investigating graduate-student wellbeing. The resulting report found 47% of responding PhD students, and 37% of masters students, “reach the threshold considered depressed”.

First out of the top-ten predictors was career prospects. Academic progress was seventh on the list, behind physical health, living conditions, academic engagement, social support and financial confidence. Makes sense to me.

Tiring as it can be to spend all day in my departmental library engaged in a battle of wits with the living, breathing thing that is my thesis, I love the freedom and flexibility that comes with student life.

What puts me at risk of a low patch is cramped rooms and uncomfortable single beds, overcooked cafeteria meals and under-equipped student gyms, and lacking an income that permits minor creature comforts, let alone achieving the milestones of modern adulthood: buying property, building a community, saving for a distant holiday and a very distant retirement.

Happily, if all goes relatively well, I should submit my thesis halfway through this year, defend it shortly after that and, with my newly Oxbridged CV, secure a well-paying job. But despite the double bed on my horizon, I’m deeply troubled by what leaving student life will do to my mental health.

A worsening ‘balance’

We’ve been “having the conversation” about mental health in Australia for a few years now. As a result, slow, ponderous change is occurring within the leviathan of a system intended to protect and care for people in crisis.

But all the awareness campaigns have had little effect on the “garden variety” mental illness that’s actually causing most of the disability and death.

Even if you (still) think we’re merely medicalising the normal ups and downs of life, you’ve got to admit there are a lot of people in a lot of pain. You may have heard that, on average, one in five adults experience anxiety, mood disorders or substance abuse every year.

You may even have heard that the leading cause of disease burden within the 15-44 age bracket is “suicide and self-inflicted injuries” for males and “anxiety and depressive disorders” for females. These statistics can only relate to what people are actually diagnosed with, or will admit to.

The hard data is much more dire. Cause-of-death statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2015 revealed that suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 15-44, and the second-leading cause for those aged 44-54 – regardless of gender.

The number of lives lost to suicide is simply too great for the “serious” mental illnesses – debilitating depression, bipolar and psychotic disorders – to be the main cause. What’s killing us is common despair. In a country consistently rated as one of the world’s most liveable, we’ve somehow developed a deadly disregard toward our own welfare.

The Australian way of life is highly ranked across almost every dimension in the OECD Better Life Index, from income and housing, through social connection, education and health, to civic engagement and environmental quality. But when it comes to work–life balance we’re far below the average. We’re 29th, in fact, below the US and UK (and Chile and Slovenia and Hungary and…), and things show no sign of improvement.

In 2014, The Australia Institute reported that work-life balance had worsened for 42% of the workforce in the previous five years. In addition, the proportion of workers reporting improvement was only a few percentage points larger than those reporting no change at all.

The greatest problem was longer hours, many of which weren’t even paid; almost A$110 billion of hours were effectively donated in the year of the report.

What’s the big deal about work–life balance? A little hard work and a few years of long hours never hurt anybody, right?

Give me a dollar for every time someone says it’s a rite of passage for the young, it’s a valiant sacrifice by working parents or, most crucially, it’s just how things are and we cannot change it, and I’d have enough for a house deposit. Here’s where the urge to slam my head into the nearest solid object becomes almost overwhelming, because when work-life balance goes awry, the first thing to suffer is mental and physical health.

When people are short on time, they simply don’t prioritise personal care anymore. I’m talking about eating, sleeping, exercising – the holy trinity of basic, essential personal maintenance.

We know that not getting enough quality sleep is intimately connected to mental illness risk. Exercise too: aside from the physical benefits, regular exercise can have huge effects on our mood. And evidence emerging from cutting-edge labs suggests that diet might have a crucial role in influencing neurochemicals via the billions of bacteria living in our guts.

If you’re stressed, exhausted and unwell, your mind and body become drastically less able to deal with the challenges life throws at us – everything from maintaining healthy personal relationships to riding the waves of global change.

And if you’re not in the habit of taking time out for your mental health, when those challenges hit us, we can become anxious and/or depressed, or simply function less well in life. This state of poor functioning makes people more likely to end up in the awful spiral that leads to suicide. We know this, and yet we seem unable to do anything about it.

The World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health estimate the global cost of mental health conditions at around US$2.5 trillion, with almost two-thirds of this coming from indirect costs – loss of productivity and income resulting from disability and death.

For Australia, the estimated costs of lost productivity are in the billions. In 2014, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated mental-health-related absenteeism costs the Australian economy A$4.7 billion annually, while presenteeism costs A$6.1 billion. And if all the hours of unpaid overtime were given to work seekers as paid work, unemployment could be virtually non-existent.

Change is possible, but only if you, my working warriors, are willing to allow it – if you let go of the toxic idea that this is “just how things are”.

Some of the socioeconomic tools necessary are already being trialled and implemented in such diverse environments as Silicon Valley and the Scandinavian bloc. With some tweaking, experimenting and help from your friendly neighbourhood millennial, they can be made to work for Australia too.

Not getting enough quality sleep is intimately connected to mental health risk. shutterstock

Change the definitions of work and rest

At its most basic, the solution to what maligns us is rest. When we properly account for all the “work” a person does in a day by adding caring, training, travelling and maintaining to the equation, and then acknowledge that work with a proper allowance of time and resources, we will ease a great amount of the psychological-turned-physiological stress plaguing us.

In my second year at Cambridge I was elected as our college graduate-committee welfare officer. It was my job to try to improve and protect the mental welfare of more than 200 high-achieving, workaholic, more-than-slightly neurotic Cambridge students.

It’s a task I still have in an unofficial capacity – how could I not?

I can’t stop my friends and fellows from working long hours if they want to. Some of them are even physiologically capable of it – but most of them aren’t. Yet they won’t look after themselves until someone gives them permission.

And my most effective tool for doing that is changing their definition of “work”. Because, really, work is anything that is not rest. That’s why discussions about the “unpaid economy” have been going since the notion of GDP was created and defined in the 1940s.

What the UK calls the “household satellite account” includes child care, transport, nutrition, household maintenance, clothing and laundry, adult care and volunteering – all tasks that have a paid equivalent.

If you are teaching your child to read, or helping with homework, you are working. If you’re cleaning or mending for yourself or someone else, you are working. If you’re helping a loved one through a rough patch, whether by accompanying them to appointments, cooking them a nutritious meal or just providing a listening ear, you are working.

So, in reality, if the nature of work is properly taken into account, we’re working far more than eight hours a day, five days a week. And we’re therefore not allocating enough time and resources for rest.

Proper rest means self-care or leisure: socialising, playing games, working on hobbies. These are states of flow and immersion, the roots of the current mindfulness movement.

Is it any wonder that hands-on crafts such as colouring, knitting and collaging have gained popularity in the past few years, when we’re working harder than ever, for longer than ever and with less time to recover than ever.

Whip out a colouring book and a set of pencils and you can rapidly put yourself into a state where all you’re thinking about is staying within the lines and which colour to use next. Your heart rate drops, your blood pressure eases: you are at rest.

One of the reasons social media and smartphones can be so “addictive” is their ability to instantly distract you, to suck you into a state of pseudo-flow. The hypnotic progression of beautiful photos on Instagram, the ability to tap into your inner child and send dorky pictures on Snapchat – used improperly, these are drug-like quick fixes, embraced by a population desperate for rest.

Whip out a colouring book and a set of pencils and you can rapidly put yourself at ease. shutterstock

New problems, old solutions

But what to do?

One solution is a universal basic income: giving people free money. The idea is not new; it’s actually been done before.

Alaska has been successfully reducing poverty and inequality for more than 35 years by providing universal dividends from the use of national assets – in its case the money came from oil resources, but it could also come from as varied sources as mineral and water rights or financial infrastructure and intellectual property.

And in the 1970s, Canada ran an experiment that provided a basic living wage for all two-parent, two-child families in the town of Dauphin, Manitoba, that were earning less than CA$50,000. In just four years, Dauphin had increased high-school completion, decreased doctor and hospital visits, and boosted mental health.

Universal basic income is a radical concept. But it’s shown enough promise that Silicon Valley start-up incubator Y-Combinator has decided to test it in Oakland, California. Local, state and federal governments are also working on trials in rural parts of Kenya, in urban Utrecht, in Ontario, Finland and Scotland.

For governments and businesses, universal basic income offers a way to simplify welfare, bolster the wages of the new “precariat”, and prepare for the coming mechanisation of huge swathes of the workforce in the near future.

Used properly, it could also be a huge boon for mental health. Consistent provision of a safety net could reduce the impulse to keep working instead of taking time to rest and recover. It could make leaving an unhealthy work situation easier, putting pressure on employers to keep their workplaces healthy. And, finally, it could allow for measuring and monetising the unpaid economy.

As a young and inexperienced student, a universal basic income calls out to my lefty soul. But the solution could be even simpler: reduce the numbers of hours people have to spend at work.

A Melbourne Institute study made waves last year when it found that the optimal working week for the over-40s was only 25-30 hours: six hours a day, or a three-day week.

And, as multiple trials in Sweden have shown, a six-hour workday with no cut in wages can actually increase profit by boosting productivity. Workers also tend to be happier and healthier, leading, in time, to increased productivity.

Another way to free up time for rest could be literally changing the way we live.

A survey of more than 6,000 students from two major Australian universities found that students had better-than-expected mental health if they were living in university residences, with parents, or with a partner and/or family.

Living with community brings more benefits than reducing rent and warding off loneliness. When tasks such as cooking, cleaning and care work are divided, each person has more time for self-care and leisure. What’s now being called “co-housing” – a model where communal spaces exist but each inhabitant or family has more private space than the average flatmate – is already gaining popularity with young professionals and creatives alike.

On a large scale, as in university residences, co-housing could even create jobs – for example, in communal kitchens. Living densely could also help solve the problems of urban sprawl threatening Australia’s economic and environmental sustainability, by reducing commuting times and enabling better resource sharing.

So, the solutions are out there, just waiting to be applied in our economically blessed Australian context. Yes, they involve sweeping change, long-term planning and pie-in-the-sky thinking, but so did the huge social schemes implemented by the last generation to be born in a time of plenty and grow up in an era of increasing instability.

The solutions of the postwar reformers are faltering now, faced with vast changes in technology, society and environment – but the youth of today are equal to the challenge.

The Pew Research Centre has named millennials “the most educated generation ever”. They’re clever, they’re informed, they’re driven, they’re charitable, they’re idealistic. And, most of all, they are desperate to reject the unhealthy working hours, unsustainable wages and unrealistic goals of modern employment.

Desperate enough to brush off labels of entitled, lazy and naive in order to pursue a way of living that they feel in their hearts must be right. They can and will change your lives for the better, if only you let them.


If you are feeling distressed or are concerned about a friend, family member or work colleague, call Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.

You can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.

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