De­feat Work Anx­i­ety

Men's Health (Australia) - - Contents - BY JO­HANN HARI ILLUSTRATION BY DAN PAGE

Is your 9-5 wreck­ing your life? How to achieve calm on the job.

I WAS FIRST DI­AG­NOSED with de­pres­sion when I was a teenager – and I was im­me­di­ately told a story by my doc­tor. It was the 1990s and this take on our dis­tress was con­quer­ing the world. You are de­pressed for a straight­for­ward rea­son, my doc­tor told me. There’s a chem­i­cal in peo­ple’s brains called sero­tonin that makes us feel good. You are nat­u­rally lack­ing this chem­i­cal. That is why you feel like pain is leak­ing out of you un­con­trol­lably.

I lived by this story for years, drug­ging my­self for more than a decade – and yet, to my puz­zle­ment, I re­mained de­pressed. Three years ago, I be­gan to re­search what was really hap­pen­ing. I ended up trav­el­ling the world, speak­ing to lead­ing sci­en­tists on this is­sue, as well as peo­ple who’ve come back from de­pres­sion. What startled me most was dis­cov­er­ing that so much of what I thought I knew was wrong. They ex­plained to me that there is no ev­i­dence that low sero­tonin causes de­pres­sion. And there is no ev­i­dence that de­pressed peo­ple have a chem­i­cal im­bal­ance in their brains.

But there is ev­i­dence that sev­eral key changes in the way we are liv­ing are caus­ing de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. Cru­cially, I learned that there is ev­i­dence for seven en­vi­ron­men­tal causes – along with two real bi­o­log­i­cal fac­tors that make it worse.

I started to glimpse one of them in Philadel­phia. Joe was wait­ing for the day to end. If you walked into the paint shop where he worked and asked for a gal­lon of paint in a par­tic­u­lar shade, he would ask you to pick it from a chart, and he would pre­pare it for you. It was al­ways the same. He would put a dash of pig­ment into the tin, then put the tin into a ma­chine that looked a bit like a mi­crowave, then the ma­chine would shake it vig­or­ously. This process evened out the paint. Then he would take your money and say, “Thank you, sir.” Then he’d wait for the next cus­tomer, and do the same thing. Then he would wait for the next cus­tomer, and do the same thing. All day. Every day.

Take an or­der. Shake paint. Say, “Thank you, sir.” Wait. Take an or­der. Shake paint. Say, “Thank you, sir.” Wait. And on. And on. No­body ever no­ticed whether Joe did it well or badly. The only thing his boss ever com­mented on was if he was late, and then he’d get bawled out. Joe told me that, as he left work, he’d al­ways think: “I don’t feel like I made a dif­fer­ence in any­one’s life.” As he looked out over the next 40 years of this, he felt a black de­spair.>


Joe felt like his hu­man thoughts, in­sights and feel­ings were al­most a de­fect. But when­ever he told me about how his work made him feel, he would chas­tise him­self. It was rea­son­ably paid, he could live with his girl­friend in an okay place; he knew plenty of peo­ple who didn’t have any of that. He felt guilty for feel­ing this way. But then the feel­ings kept com­ing back. And he shook more paint. And he shook more paint. And he shook more paint.

Joe made me think about a lot of my friends. Most of them have more in­ter­est­ing jobs than Joe, but they often viewed their work with anx­i­ety, panic or low-level de­spair. I be­gan to won­der: could the way we work be play­ing a role in de­pres­sion?

I learned that the an­swer to this was un­cov­ered, al­most by ac­ci­dent, in the 1970s by an Aus­tralian sci­en­tist, called Pro­fes­sor Michael Mar­mot. He was given the job of car­ry­ing out a study that most peo­ple thought was point­less be­cause the an­swer would be so ob­vi­ous. He wanted to in­ves­ti­gate what makes peo­ple stressed at work and he be­lieved he’d found the per­fect lab­o­ra­tory in which to learn the an­swer: the British civil ser­vice in White­hall. This small army of bu­reau­crats and civil ser­vants was di­vided into 19 dif­fer­ent lay­ers, from the per­ma­nent sec­re­tary at the top, down to the typ­ists at the bot­tom. What he wanted to in­ves­ti­gate was who would be more likely to have a heart at­tack: the big boss or some­body be­low them?


Ev­ery­body told Mar­mot he was wast­ing his time. Ob­vi­ously, the boss would be more stressed be­cause he has more re­spon­si­bil­ity. But when the re­sults were pub­lished, af­ter years of in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the truth was found to be the ex­act op­po­site. The lower down you went in the hi­er­ar­chy, the more stressed you were – and the more likely a heart at­tack be­came. Then he no­ticed that you could see ex­actly the same ef­fect with de­pres­sion. Next he wanted to know why.

So, he be­gan to study peo­ple who worked at the same rung on the civil ser­vice lad­der, but whose jobs dif­fered, to see whether this could ex­plain the dif­fer­ences. And it did. He cracked it.

He dis­cov­ered what made the dif­fer­ence. It turned out there are two cru­cial as­pects of your work that can make you de­pressed and stressed. One is if you feel you have no con­trol over your work. And the other is if you feel no­body seems to care about your work or no­tice how well you do it.

Those two fac­tors are worse in the low­est­sta­tus jobs, but they are not con­fined to them. Even peo­ple in very high-level jobs often feel like this. Be­tween 2011 and 2012, the polling com­pany Gallup con­ducted the most de­tailed study ever car­ried out to as­sess how peo­ple across the world feel about their work. They found that 13 per cent of us say we are “en­gaged” in our jobs, while 63 per cent claim to be “not en­gaged”, which is de­fined as “sleep­walk­ing through their work­day”. Mean­while 24 per cent are “ac­tively dis­en­gaged”. They hate their work.

That means that 87 per cent of peo­ple, if they were to read Joe’s story, would recog­nise at least a lit­tle of them­selves in it. Nearly twice as many peo­ple hate their jobs as those who love their work. And this thing that most of us don’t like do­ing – that feels like sleep­walk­ing, or worse – now takes up most of our wak­ing lives. The av­er­age worker checks their first email at 7.42am and leaves work at 7.19pm.

As I re­searched, I looked at sev­eral deep shifts in the way we live to­day. We are lone­lier than any hu­mans be­fore us. We are more likely to value junk – like buy­ing stuff, then show­ing it off – than any hu­mans be­fore us. These are other deep changes that have been shown sci­en­tif­i­cally to in­crease de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. Yet we con­tinue to be told that all that’s hap­pen­ing is our brains are spon­ta­neously mal­func­tion­ing and we need to be drugged to get back to work. There is a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about de­pres­sion – one that leads to very dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions. Ev­i­dence sug­gests we are de­pressed for ra­tio­nal rea­sons be­cause we aren’t liv­ing in a way that is com­pat­i­ble with what hu­man be­ings need to have a de­cent life. I’ve come to re­alise that this means the so­lu­tion isn’t to change our brains, but to change the way we live. Some of the sci­en­tif­i­cally backed so­lu­tions I go through in my new book Lost Con­nec­tions can be car­ried out in our per­sonal lives. Some re­quire big­ger shifts.

I learned about one pos­si­ble so­lu­tion to Joe’s prob­lem in Bal­ti­more. The day that Mered­ith Mitchell handed in her res­ig­na­tion, she won­dered if she was do­ing some­thing crazy. She worked in a typ­i­cal of­fice job. She was given as­sign­ments with a dead­line and her role was to keep her head down and do what she was told. At the age of 24, she could see this stretch­ing out be­fore her in­ex­orably. Around this time, Mered­ith had started to feel a per­va­sive sense of anx­i­ety that she couldn’t quite un­der­stand. On Sun­day nights, she’d feel her heart pound­ing in her chest and a sense of dread about the week to come. Be­fore long, she found she couldn’t sleep dur­ing the week, ei­ther.

She was quit­ting for a rea­son. Her hus­band Josh Keogh had worked in bike shops since he was a teenager. It was in­se­cure work, poorly paid, with no path up – but he loved bikes. One day, he and his friends in the bike store asked some­thing. What, ex­actly, does the boss do? Don’t we do most of the work? Couldn’t we do this our­selves? So they de­cided to set up a new bike store – but they would run it dif­fer­ently. They’d or­gan­ise the com­pany demo­crat­i­cally. They’d share out a lot of the less in­ter­est­ing tasks, so no­body was stuck do­ing some­thing they didn’t like for too long. They’d all build some­thing, to­gether. They’d all be the boss.


When I went to Bal­ti­more Bi­cy­cle Works – a thriv­ing busi­ness – most of the staff talked about how they had felt anx­ious and de­pressed in their old jobs, and how it had largely dis­ap­peared once they shifted to this new way of work­ing.

The rea­sons why are made clear in Pro­fes­sor Mar­mot’s re­search. These peo­ple worked in bike shops be­fore; they work in bike shops now. The ac­tual work hasn’t changed dras­ti­cally, but they have dealt with the fac­tors that cause de­pres­sion. Now, they have con­trol over their work; their col­leagues no­tice the work they do. De­press­ing tasks are shared out, so they don’t dom­i­nate any­one’s day. This is the dif­fer­ence be­tween work that de­presses you and work that en­er­gises you.

There is no rea­son, they told me, why com­pa­nies have to be struc­tured in this top­down, con­trol­ling way. It’s a new in­ven­tion, dat­ing back just to the 19th cen­tury. So why don’t all com­pa­nies work like this?

This is a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. We have been taught to see them as patholo­gies – signs that the in­di­vid­ual is bro­ken. But what if they are signs that, in fact, the cul­ture is bro­ken? That it’s not giv­ing peo­ple what they need? I dis­cov­ered there is a whole range of so­lu­tions, like giv­ing peo­ple con­trol over their work, that act as real an­tide­pres­sants – ones that ac­tu­ally solve the de­pres­sion, rather than try­ing to mask it.

I re­alise now what I should have told Joe back in Philly. You’re not crazy. You’re right to feel down. You’re be­ing made to live in a way that doesn’t meet your needs for au­ton­omy and mean­ing and choice. But we don’t have to live like this. There is a bet­ter way wait­ing for us. But, to get there, we have to start by see­ing that de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety are not what we have been told they are for so very long. Award-win­ning au­thor Jo­hann Hari’s book Lost Con­nec­tions: Un­cov­er­ing the Real Causes of De­pres­sion – and the Un­ex­pected So­lu­tions is avail­able from Blooms­bury and as an au­dio­book from Au­di­ble. Visit th­elost­con­nec­

‘‘We are de­pressed be­cause we aren’t liv­ing in a way hu­man be­ings need to have a de­cent life”

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