The Poisonous Workday

by Carter Brock
File under: Fake Labor 11 Apr 2014 13:21 EDT

I think my job is killing me. Usually this sort of thing is said with a touch of hyperbole, but this time I'm not exaggerating. Like many in the developed world, I'm making my way in the service sector of the workforce. Far from living easy, this lifestyle presents its own unique hazards. Although my life is not in immediate danger — I'm not a miner or a firefighter or anything like that — the threat is still very real. This is more than mere “Work Sucks” sentiment. It is this author's contention that the workday is one of (if not the) primary drivers of sickness today. Participate at your own risk.

Consider the worst epidemics of our time. Modern science has bested the afflictions of our ancestors. Through research, vaccination, and a bit of hygiene, many of yesterday's nightmares such as tuberculosis, smallpox, or the plague are all but a distant memory. Rather than external pathogens, modern disease tends to arise from internal conditions. Our great illnesses are comprised of the so-called lifestyle diseases: depression, anxiety, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. All interrelated, and all endemic to the kind of life that we lead (willingly or otherwise).

The workday is the root component of this lifestyle. Work hours (along with the financial necessity to work) are intractable, fixed. The average worker must mold their daily routines to fit what amounts to a totalitarian employment schedule. They internalize the patterns of working life, which constitutes the centerpiece of their day, and often adopt their occupation as their personal identity. If this lifestyle, structured around the workday as the foundation, is shown to be toxic, then we must conclude that employment itself is the toxic source.

Let's be clear that this assertion is not a knock against strong work ethic. Most things worth doing are going to be difficult, and will likely involve some degree of struggle or unpleasantness. Certainly we can agree, however, that hard work to achieve something worthwhile is quite different from the arbitrary, narrow-minded, soulless drudgery of contemporary labor. It's called an “occupation” because it's just something to keep you busy.

Locked into the cycle of the workday, the well-being of the employee is slowly eroded. Perhaps the biggest factor in this decline is stress that is inflicted on the worker. We'd never be so naive to suggest that life could or should be stress-free, but there is a big difference between stress that arises from the natural order of things versus overt pressures imposed upon us by other human beings. At its worst, malicious managers endlessly harass their staffs in a cynical attempt to extract as much profit and productivity as possible. At its best, the helpless employee is tethered to their labor that is both mundane and meaningless.

It's not hard to picture the myriad ways by which the workplace induces stress. What's important to understand is the effect of incessant daily stress exposure on the body and mind. The most obvious consequences of this stress are the mental health disorders of depression and anxiety. Really, these two conditions are just different expressions of the same fundamental problem — depression being worry about the reality of what is, and anxiety being worry about the possibilities of what could be. Treatment of these problems is focused on therapy and pills (or other substances) in an attempt to fit the individual to the sadistic social system, instead of the truly therapeutic act of removing the person from the stressful environment. Escapism of its various sorts is the subconscious desire to achieve exactly that.

While psychological distress is difficult enough to treat on its own, the damage doesn't end with neurosis. There are physiological repercussions as well. This is the mind-body connection of wellness and disease, something understood most simply when we say that depression or anxiety makes us “feel” bad. Overall, the consensus in mainstream science is that stress manifests in physical breakdown:

Research has shown that people who experience intense and long-term (i.e., chronic) stress can have digestive problems, fertility problems, urinary problems, and a weakened immune system. People who experience chronic stress are also more prone to viral infections such as the flu or common cold and to have headaches, sleep trouble, depression, and anxiety...

Some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, but others have not. Apparent links between psychological stress and cancer could arise in several ways. For example, people under stress may develop certain behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, or drinking alcohol, which increase a person’s risk for cancer.

Researchers are reticent to draw a one-to-one connection between stress and cancer (such as UV exposure leading to skin cancer),but again, these various maladies are all interrelated pieces of a larger health puzzle.

The workday will always fail the human being because it tries to make rigid the human life that is by nature fluid and unpredictable. Our sleep patterns are usually the first to suffer under the workday routine, and inadequate sleep is well-known to have “profound [negative] consequences” for our health. Meanwhile, work is often performed at one's office or desk, rendering immobile the human body that is designed for locomotion (not to mention long, seated workday commutes). Hello heart disease and obesity. There's something absurd about the need to go to the gym to offset the negative effects of the labor lifestyle, instead of simply living in a manner that promotes good health as a matter of course.

Divorcing the human being from its nature, is it any wonder why we're so screwed up?

The third strike for our health is that the workday saps away our most useful time and energy. Once our job has extracted our energy for 8 hours or more, there is little left over for much besides watching television. Preparing fresh, healthy meals requires time and energy that many workers lack, so they turn to “convenience” foods and fast foods, fueling the poor health spiral. Although you may find the energy to exercise or the time to get enough sleep, something along the way is going to suffer because there are only so many hours in the day. (Special mention here for the neglect of our community and family relationships as well)

This is where the economic benefit of labor falls apart for the worker. It is precisely the treatment of these lifestyle diseases that is causing healthcare costs to balloon out of control (driven by insurance, pharmaceutical, and hospital greed of course). We never cure the disease by changing the unhealthy lifestyle; we simply commit to on-going medical treatment to perpetuate our unhealthy behavior. This is a cash windfall for the “healthcare” industry, and in this age of infinite digital credit creation, prices will continue to inflate into the stratosphere.

As these prices rise, you can be sure that insurance companies will do everything possible to reduce their coverage and pass the higher cost onto the consumer through increasing deductibles, co-pays, and premiums. This has already started happening since the Affordable Care Act took affect last fall. Before long we'll likely reach a point where one major health diagnosis is enough to bankrupt the average citizen, even if they have insurance coverage. In many ways, we're already there.

So how then does the worker profit when their employment directly leads to health bankruptcy? Why bother amassing savings or acquiring property when it's ultimately going to be wiped out anyway? With stagnant wages and skyrocketing healthcare costs, we may have passed an economic threshold where you save more by working less and living more healthfully than you would earn in pay from your unhealthy, full-time working life. As it stands, trudging to work day-in, day-out will make someone rich, it's just unlikely that this person will be yourself.

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Pirate Jo says:15 Apr 2014 11:15 EDT
I've been living this hell for ten years and am close to semi-escaping. Here's what I recommend:

1) Don't have kids. There is no point, since they will have it even worse than you do, and the expense will trap you into slaving for a paycheck forever.
2) Get completely out of debt, including paying off your home, even if that means you settle for a 2BR condo.
3) Semi-retire to contract work.

You may never find work that is meaningful, fulfilling, or even the slightest bit interesting. Very little of it even exists in modern times, because most jobs are with the government or big corporations. But if you are going to be stuck in mundame, life-suckingly boring work, at least make it your goal to do as little of it as possible. Live for the months in between assignments when you don't have to work.
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