The main cause of men's ill health in the developed world
Malehealth editor Jim Pollard says that Men's Health Week followed by a holiday has taught him that work is probably the biggest unacknowledged cause of men's ill health today.
Work is insidious and evil. It gets up the nose and under the skin. It's a dangerous killer and should probably be illegal.
I'm exaggerating a little perhaps. But that's not surprising. I've just come back from a nice holiday to find 500 plus emails awaiting my attention. All the relaxing benefits of revitalising sunshine, eating properly, swimming regularly, cycling daily and reading a couple of decent books all gone in the click of a mouse.
'Just delete the lot' said a friend. I wish I'd the nerve to follow her advice.
But I haven't so I'm back to square one. Behind square one. Not sleeping properly. Deadlines, to-do lists and other work-related crud filling my head. Why did I need a holiday in the first place? All the running around ahead of last month's Men's Health Week for one. And the theme of this Men's Health Week? Men and work. At four in the morning, the irony strikes like a gong.
Work is like the washing-up - it never ends. You realise that very starkly indeed when you see 500 emails marked as 'unread'. (I go through mine starting with the most recent in the hope that as the mails get older they'll have been overtaken by events and I can ignore them. I think it's quicker but it means that the older ones have to wait even longer for a reply. That bothers me.) But unlike the washing-up, work can cause all sorts of health problems. (You can read about them using the links on the right.) The latest apparently is erection difficulties.
Why the hell am I bothering with these emails? Well, I need the money.
The answer is not as obvious as it seems as even people who have plenty of money work. I once interviewed a bloke who won £2.3 million on the lottery on Saturday and went back to his job on the railways on the Tuesday.
Many professional footballers earn enough in a year or two to last most of us a lifetime yet no footballer ever retires because he's got enough in the bank and doesn't need to be kicked up in the air by John Terry anymore. (Or at least, none admit it.)
The lottery winner said he realised that he enjoyed his job. I suppose footballers feel the same.
So is it simply that I don't enjoy my job? I don't think it's that. You're pretty much your own boss as a freelance writer and editing malehealth is fun and feels socially useful.
It's more to do with something inside me. Blokes especially identify with their jobs. We become what we do. I like to think of myself as someone who takes everyone as they come and doesn't care about rank or status but when I'm introduced to someone it's amazing how quickly I ask him what he does for a living. We classify people according to their work including ourselves. Can't help it.
So if work is part of how you identify yourself, you need to feel that you're doing it well. And the truth is that in modern workplace nobody can honestly feel that.
We're constantly juggling, constantly trying to get more done in less time, our notions of professionalism and our boss's bottom line both pushing us in the same direction.
Things usually get done well enough but rarely as well as they could be done.
If that bothers you - and it does me - you're in trouble. I imagine this nagging 'not as good as it could be' is even worse in a vocational job like teaching or caring. But the people who sleep with their Blackberries know it too. (Whether the little ego boost of pretending you're indispensible is enough to offset the sense of always chasing your own tail I doubt.)
That's why most successful business people are psychopaths.
By this I don't mean they're killers but that they're psychopathic in the medical sense. They're charming and intelligent but have little sense of responsibility beyond their own gratification.
This is the ideal personality profile for the modern boss who arrives in a blaze of glory, restructures the firm, cashes in his options on the back of a short-term surge in the share price and buggers off with the contractual golden handshake when it all falls apart within a couple of years.
But what about those who are restructured? The civilised people who hold society - and businesses - together. I don't see their lot getting better anytime soon. We're working longer hours. Some 3.3 million people in the UK work more than 48 hours a week. (Between 1998 and 2006, the number of people working over 48 hours a week actually went down from 3.8 million to 3.1 million.)
And if all these extra hours are mostly for money, most of us are getting less of our fair share.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the gap between rich and poor in Britain is wider than for more than 40 years. Social mobility is down. Children born poor in the 50s had more chance of getting rich than those born poor in the 70s.
It used to be that there were compensations for relatively low pay - job security (you might not get much but at least you knew it would continue), good pensions and other perks. But all this has gone too.
The reduced influence of the trade unions and outsourcing to other countries or to freelancers and contractors has put an end to job security. On the face of it I'm one of the lucky beneficiaries of this as a freelance writer (and I'd rather work for myself than one of those psychos) but it probably means I'll never be able to retire.
I will die working. Many freelancers do - and not all from choice.
Pensions are useless today anyway. Pension apartheid is the way ahead with a dwindling number of older hands on decent defined benefit schemes and newer recruits stuck with defined contributions but no idea what the benefits will be.
And as for the perks, well, work may be on my mind at the moment but it's very much not on the mind of my girlfriend. She's just started a one year break. Under French law, you're entitled to one of these sabbaticals every six years. Your job or an equivalent is held open for you. Sounds great. But consider the case of her cousin. He'd like a sabbatical too and has the same legal right to one. Trouble is he works for an Anglo-Saxon firm so while the right exists in theory, in practise if he exercises it, he can kiss goodbye to any promotion in the future. Yes, while regulation can help, you can legislate away psychopathy.
All these developments tend to make work less healthy - either physically or psychologically or both - suggesting work-related health problems will increase over the next decades.
Perhaps worst of all, if the stress of low pay, long hours and reduced security at a time of falling house prices and spiralling food and energy costs isn't enough to keep you awake all night with the screaming ab-dabs, the job - for all but a handful - is as dull as dishwater.
Modern management is about numbers. Psychos like numbers - they're easier to manipulate than people. Find something you can measure, show that it has improved under your leadership and watch the share price do the same.
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it is the maxim. An understandable response to time-servers perhaps but it's gone way too far. If you truly can only manage numbers, it's your management technique that needs restructuring not the business.
Few of the things that really matter in life - creativity, innovation, fun, beauty, love, laughter - can be measured.
Nor, to come back to how much men identify with their work, can self-respect. If none of these things count for anything in today's workplace no wonder they're such horrible - and unhealthy - places to be. So maybe there's something to be said for working at home and being your own boss?
Hmmm, better get back to those emails - 47 down, 474 to go. (These numbers are plausible and in the right ball-park but, of course, totally made-up - just as yours are for whatever it is that your psycopathic boss wants you to measure.)
Have a great summer holiday.
- Make work healthier by checking out our Men At Work section.
Page created on July 7th, 2008
Page updated on January 16th, 2010