Picture by Finn on Unsplash 

Mental health — the positive and negative effects of employment and unemployment

The positive effects on mental health from employment are the same positive effects that come from any purpose in life. I don’t think there are any direct effects on mental health from unemployment, either.  But before I try to justify those claims, some background.



From a small child, everyone expected me to be employed — probably in academia, or maybe industry

So when I left school and wanted a job before university it surprised me how difficult it was to get a job.  Any job.  Office work, warehouse work, shop work, factory work; I was not selected for three months and twenty-odd interviews until a quango (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation) gave me some very basic admin work.  The quango, in hindsight, was run by some definitely autism-leaning people and so saw a kindred spirit in me.

Future unemployment was the same — lots of interviews, but never picked  In those first eleven years after school I had six “proper” jobs: three holiday jobs with the quango, one summer in a packing factory, and two “DHSS” jobs — where the Job Centre sends you to an interview for a job they selected.  Such jobs are often with “employers of last resort” — companies that are avoided by people who can pick and choose as they are not good places to work, even if you aren’t suffering from mental ill-health.  And so, without the mental fortitude to grind out a couple of years and then finding a better job (like the majority of their employees) I failed my probation and went without references.

Employers of last resort are the exact opposite of what people need.  Management should be about getting the best from the people under you, encouraging them and helping them grow.  So much management, especially in the last resort, is about punishing people for failing to achieve impossible targets, including berating people for not achieving their Continuous Professional Development targets — that’s making the company look bad!  Why did you fail the external course?  That cost us a lot of money, that course!

Unemployment isn’t bad for your mental health, but people’s expectation that you should be doing “something useful” with your life, that’s the problem

By the time I turned thirty, things were bleak — I’d amassed just over two years’ experience, and I’d had to be inventive filling the gaps in my CV: I had done various crafts and sold the odd piece or picture, so each sale did duty for a couple of years of “self-employment”.  References were either personal or from ten years earlier.  It was another five years before I got a diagnosis of Autism and was given sheltered employment.

After a few years of unemployment, and years before my diagnosis, I realised accepting myself as someone who is literally unable to work like other people helped enormously, as did deciding that the confrontational atmosphere from the various government agencies was no concern of mine.  The environment is supposed to keep the “idle” from claiming unemployment benefits, but what it is much more effective at doing is making sure the mentally ill remain so ill that they will never find long-term or even mid-term work.

Benefits are a major perpetuation, and in some circumstances also the cause, of ill-health

My years on benefits were called “benefit tennis” — I would be so ill my GP would sign me off, then after six months I would get a DHSS or insert-new-name-here review, and with a diagnosis of suicidally depressed and anxious be judged fit for work. The reviewing doctor would send a letter to my GP saying, quote, “Do not sign this man off” he is fit for work, including some justifications. The Job Centre job-search contract would include terms that anyone would find challenging if they were trying to maintain them for more than six months, so I would immediately struggle to fulfil my contract, limp on for a few months, then beg my GP to sign me off again.  My GP would read the review letter, immediately dismiss it, and sign me off for six months — this is something doctors are no longer allowed to do under any circumstances, as the system now requires them to sign off for four weeks on “first” presentation.  And now the cycle repeats, each time making me feel worse, while feeling like it’s impossible to feel any worse, until it happens.

The benefits system constantly threatens you with losing your benefits, while not giving you enough to live on — minimum wage for forty hours a week also doesn’t give most people enough to have good mental health, and that’s more than benefits.  Whatever the source, almost everyone worries about their future income, but rich people’s worries about finding the money for a new car while still enjoying a foreign holiday, or how they are going to afford tutors and music lessons for their children, are self-imposed — when you are also powerless about the causes of your worries, they are much worse.

Work isn’t good for your mental health — a pleasant and supportive purpose in your life is what you need

Some people have told me that I just choose the wrong jobs, and that good employers are out there, but I hear similar experiences from others, so I think people who are better at playing the employment game snap up all the jobs with the good employers and hang on to them. 

People also say that often the group that they work with makes the job easier, because people talk about stuff and the group adjusts to get the job done and to be supportive of personal troubles.  Again, that doesn’t really work for Autistic people who don’t know how to make friends nor what to say.  I say too little, and get accused of deliberately making others’ jobs harder; I know people who say too much and who are then thought of as incapable and needing help with everything (even though they are not actually asking for help).  Only managers and colleagues who understand the Autist can adapt to such situations.  Trying your best with the consequence that colleagues feel you are incompetent or malicious is not good for your mental health.

It really isn’t rocket science.

The Goth

May 2021