When will wellbeing actually matter?

The idea of permanent productivity has been so ingrained into our collective consciousness that even the pandemic could not alter our sickening obsession with it. Can we do better?

Commuters cram into a Tube carriage after advice to work from home was dropped on Wednesday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson – PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

On September 28th 2015, I posted the following update to a social media account: “I don’t have sick days. I have days absorbing information for future work, while being unwell.”

Honestly, I can’t remember if my point was a barb against the non-stop productivity mindset or an admission of my own ongoing inability to JUST. RELAX. Still, my acceptance of not having a proper break while unwell doesn’t seem out of place. It is a societal habit that the idea of always being productive persists in our lives. 

We study to work, we work to live, to buy things like property, to be successful… The list goes on. Take having a holiday from work as an example. I’m sure workers in some industries find familiar the days before going on holiday as ‘making sure everything is up to date’. Managers may provide handovers and ensure colleagues know not to contact them (but if they really do need to, then to use this number). On return from leave there may be a day or five of ‘getting up to speed’, of showing what colleagues or the company missed in your absence. Proving your worth.

Six or so years on from my social media post, the world has gone through a devastating pandemic. Lives have been lost, and immeasurable suffering has been experienced the world over on top of existing daily stresses. Extreme weather seems more frequent too, while spikey political events serve to compound a largely concerning experience. In Britain we gave ourselves Brexit to deal with, while productivity has remained crucial. And anyway we’ve all be fine – right?

Obviously not. 

Without a doubt there has been cross-generational suffering in recent years. Just ask a friend or family member how they’ve been doing. Young people are clearly suffering, be it through missed social interactions or disrupted study despite the best effort or teachers. A recent study by the University of Calgary suggests youth anxiety and depression has doubled when compared to pre-pandemic levels. People of working age, who may have worked from home, and may be a key worker, a health professional, or anyone trying to keep themselves or their business financially viable, will surely have had their own stresses. Meanwhile, older people, anyone more vulnerable or unable to work, could have been at threat of worse effects of the COVID-19 illness, suffering isolation and more besides. 

What is undeniable is that all of us have gone through, and are still going through, something beyond the usual stresses of the modern world. And yet the one thing which underpins day-to-day life – the need for constant productivity and financial prosperity – has so far failed to demonstrably change. Sectors of the economy have been supported by the treasury, furlough schemes were put in place, and clapping was preferred to deserved pay-rises for health workers. But much praise since the first lockdown has been reserved for people’s ability to ‘keep going’, for carrying on. Talk of ‘returning to normal’ has swirled overhead for almost two years, like the sweet scent of candyfloss at a theme park. Yes it smells lovely, but is it really what we need? 

During the pandemic, economies themselves needed support. There were various packages from the UK treasury to plug gaps – some gaps more successfully than others. But what happens now? A much-vaunted “return to normal” and “living with the virus”, apparently. A situation which may bring relief to those less susceptible to COVID-19 and its variants, who are able to enter whatever that new normality is. But why can’t we change how we go about things? Haven’t we learned it’s all a bit much? Isn’t collective wellbeing now sacrosanct?

During the first few months of the pandemic, economic anthropologist Jason Hickel tweeted the following:

It was a timely tweet. Nobody chooses to be part of wider economies, and you can choose to try not to – with clear financial, professional and personal ramifications. Be that getting hugely in debt, losing a car or house, or just having to live in isolation and going fully off the grid. During the pandemicHickel’s suggestion of collective trauma from established economic structures is something that is now more plain than ever. Because we all have to keep carrying on in some respect, yet while the economy struggles we struggle because of it. Maybe there has been some chance for reflection though. The Great Resignation reportedly saw one in four UK workers planning to change jobs. Not escaping the economy, but repositioning, hopefully lessening their stress. 

Personally, I left my last full time once office-based ‘permanent’ role in June 2021. My mental health wasn’t great at that time, but I was lucky to be able to afford myself a temporary time-out. Seven months on, now self-employed for the second time in my life, I’ve regained a sense of self, purpose, passion. My personal well-being is better than it’s been in years, although as far as the economy is concerned, I’m not hugely productive. Especially when compared to my previous steady-job salaried employment. What’s important to me is that I have undergone, am undergoing, a sort of personal recovery. And yet conversations around national and global recovery usually have the economy and GDPR front and centre.  

Jason Hickel has two published works related to economic structures, discussing their impact on humanity and the planet: his 2020 book Less Is More: How Degrowth will Save the World, and 2018’s The Divide: A Brief Guide to Inequality and its Solutions. Such work appears grounded in undoing global inequality in the search of global wellbeing, but why wouldn’t it be? Last year The Guardian reported on a Resolution Foundation thinktank study which found that in the UK the richest 1% own almost a quarter of national wealth. The World Economic Forum’s Global Inequality report (December 2021) tells a similar story. It states that the poorest 50% of the global population owns just 2% of global wealth. The richest 10% own 76% of wealth. Worse, the report makes clear that the pandemic has “exacerbated many existing inequalities”. 

Considering these facts, we may reasonably wonder if a balance of wealth and prosperity can ever be found. In the meantime, how long can we go on prioritising production which fails to benefit a majority while de-prioritising wellbeing? It’s not unreasonable to ask why wellbeing isn’t more prevalent a priority in economies ‘post-pandemic’ given what we’ve all endured. And it’s not unreasonable to give yourself some downtime when unwell or on leave from work – something 2015-me should have thought about. 

What is also not unreasonable is a new approach to the status quo. Thankfully, a trial of a four-day week is coming this year. More than 30 UK companies are taking part, and those trialling it will receive no less pay. You’d have to hope that such ideas can help refocus our own wellbeing, downtime and self-recovery. An extra weekend day, imagine the joy! True, four-day weeks reportedly increase productivity too. Good for the economy then. But importantly, crucially, it seems good for people’s wellbeing. More of that, please.

Kevin is a freelance writer and poet. Formerly a journalist and ecommerce editor, he is the author of Three Sheets to the Wind: A Collection of Modern Poetry.

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