Shorter working week, better mental health, less human misery

You can’t think straight and you feel constantly sick. You feel utterly overwhelmed with stuff that must be done, and so get nothing done.  Pleasure is a vague and distant memory, and there seems to be an invisible wall between you and the world. There seems no point in getting out of bed, so you don’t.

This is what mental illness can feel like. It’s a horrible, awful place to be.

There is a welcome focus on mental health services in the news today. But how much better for the sum of human happiness to prevent the mental illness in the first place.

A shorter working week would help, says the UK’s top public health doctor John Ashton. In July, he said in this article, “When you look at the way we lead our lives, the stress that people are under, the pressure on time and sickness absence, [work-related] mental health is clearly a major issue. We should be moving towards a four-day week because the problem we have in the world of work is you’ve got a proportion of the population who are working too hard and a proportion that haven’t got jobs”.

Working hours may even be the single most important factor in mental health. “The pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture in the UK is perhaps the biggest and most pressing challenge to the mental health of the general population”, says the Mental Health Foundation. They say it is estimated that nearly three in ten employees will experience a mental health problem in any one year. Long-time expert on well-being, Professor Cary Cooper, estimates that stress costs employers £100 billion per year. The human cost is, of course, incalculable.

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