Thank God for Happy Hour, because this job is killing me
So why do they call it the Happy Hour anyway? I believe that it’s because for the majority of us, those 8 or 9 hours you just spent working were the sad and depressing hours. For a growing majority of us, being able to find meaning in your work could be a matter of life and death. Although some might argue that tech frees us from the office to be with our families, I believe that tech is blurring the lines between work time and personal time. More and more employers expect employees to be available via phone after work hours, (Fleming,12). Meaningless and or stressful work leads to depression, and depression leads to heart disease.
In Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections he puts forth the idea that a disconnection from meaningful work is one of the leading causes of depression and anxiety (60). Given that we spend more time working than anything else, it would go to figure that what happens in the workplace has a strong influence on a person’s well being. Some people find meaning by the sense of identity their career gives them, others find a sense of purpose, or feeling of pride for a job well done. Fundamentally, it boils down to enjoying what you do. Unfortunately some of us don’t have that option due to various circumstances.
So what makes work meaningless? Micheal (one of the persons Hari mentions in his book) explains it this way “The worst stress for people isn’t having to bear a lot of responsibility. It is, he told me, having to endure “work [that] is monotonous, boring, soul-destroying; [where] they die a little when they come to work each day, because their work touches no part of them that is them” (79). What is monotonous and boring for some, may be different for others, and notice how Micheal said that the stress wasn’t caused by having responsibility. I’ve worked on a factory floor and I know what it feels like to feel like a mindless cog, where all you can do is hope for the workday to end. I was extremely bored and wished I could do something I enjoyed doing. The only meaning or purpose to my work was that it paid the bills. I didn’t care about the company, and I certainly didn’t care how much money the owner made. If you take a job because you don’t want to live on the streets, you’re lucky if you find something you like to do, but when it’s not enjoyable, it’s meaningless [to you] and you feel trapped in it, because you have no options. Based on what I’ve described above you can see how a meaningless job could lead to you feeling like your future is bleak, and that could lead to depression.
Taking on a job you don’t enjoy seems like a one-way ticket to Depressionland.
But what if you like your job? You might not be bored, but you could still become depressed. In the book “Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity, and the Reconstruction Of Working Life”, the authors put forth the theory that job strain is a combination of high job demands and low job control. They call this the Job Demand Control (JDC) model of work stress.
“Under JDC theory, when workers are faced with high demands, an increase in arousal occurs as a mild flight-or-fight response that enables the worker to cope in the short term. If the demands are chronic and the employee lacks the appropriate level of job control to funnel the aroused energy into an appropriate coping response, residual stress arousal builds up and creates harmful effects on physical and mental health. Since depression is associated with low energy and fatigue it is not surprising that it is specified as one of four predominant adverse outcomes of job strain” (Karasek & Theorell, 36).
Please allow me to share a personal story that illustrates the toxic effects that chronic demands and lack of control can have on an otherwise meaningful and somewhat rewarding job. After I left that factory job I mentioned before, I told myself I would never do boring work ever again if I could avoid it. Years later I found an office job I thought I might enjoy. I worked for a small company that installed satellite television. I was in charge of customer service. Anytime something would go wrong with someone’s service I would get a call. My job was to try to help the customer resolve the issue over the phone. This wasn’t a problem for me because I’ve always been sort of a tech nerd, I enjoy helping others, and who doesn’t like talking about favorite TV shows with people. Unfortunately in most cases I wasn’t able to fix their issues. I had no control over how the installation was done, and in some cases tampered with by other outside technicians sent by the phone or cable companies after the fact. And I certainly didn’t have control over the weather. Severe weather events like heavy rain would block the signal and sometimes heavy winds could blow the dish out of alignment.
When I could fix something over the phone it was a very rewarding experience. The customers I could help over the phone were extremely grateful, but oftentimes I was forced to have to tell the customer that they would have to pay to get a tech out to them to fix the issue, and that wasn’t free. This would of course result in a very upset person on the other line, and would sometimes even result in a complaint to the corporate office. When corporate got the complaint they would pass it down to my boss, the owner of the little company I worked for. When I tried to explain to him that it was impossible to fix an issue over the phone, he would say I wasn’t trying hard enough. He would say that I was lazy, and didn’t want to do my job. Everytime the phone would ring I would be filled with dread, because seven times out of ten the call wouldn’t end well. Could this be my flight-or-fight response, I think so. The amount of stress and fatigue I felt each day was starting to make me feel very depressed and extremely anxious. Going back to that study once more “We found that both repeated job strain and increased job strain between phases 1 and 3 were associated with increased risk of major depressive disorder at phase 5” (Karasek & Theorell, 36). I had no control, and thanks to technology, I had no relief from the constant demand.
Does technology free us, or does it imprison us? Some would say that tech has given us this world of abundance that most of us are able to enjoy, and there’s no arguing that, but the tech I’m talking about is telepresence. The always-on, the always connected, the always-available way of living and working that computers and cell phones have made possible. You might say, I love working from home it saves me from having to drive in to work. I would say that in the past you brought yourself to work, but now you’ve let work into your home. What do you do if your work is a rude house guest? How do you get them to leave when the very roof over your head depends on it. How can you be truly present with your loved ones, when your attention is required elsewhere? How can you relax, when at any moment you might have to deal with some random urgent matter over the phone? When work is stressful, technology can bring that stress home. If we can’t escape what depresses us about work, we need to find a way to find meaning in our work.
So far I’ve given you examples of what meaningless work is, and I’ve described how it leads to depression. I will conclude by reflecting on some of the numerous studies that have identified a link between depression and heart disease. Spoiler alert, I think it has something to do with the flight-or-fight response. “Heart disease and depression often go hand in hand. Long term studies have found that people with depression have a significantly higher risk of subsequent heart disease, and vice versa” (Rodriguez, 16). So not only does depression lead to heart disease, but heart disease leads to depression. That’s what I call a bad feedback loop. In a study in 2014, by researchers in the U.S. Australia, and China, nearly one thousand young adults with depression also were found to have enlarged internal diameters of the blood vessels of the retina. The investigators also found that participants with more symptoms of depression and anxiety had wider retinal arterioles than others, which could affect the quality of blood vessels in their heart and brain. So what happens when your flight-or-fight response is triggered? Your blood pressure goes up. Have you ever forgotten to shut the water off after you finished washing your car, only to later discover that the hose now looks like it ate a rabbit? Our arterioles are just like that hose, but unlike that hose, they aren’t made from reinforced rubber.
The link between high blood pressure aka hypertension and heart disease is painfully evident, however the link between depression and heart disease is a bit muddy. “The relationship is complex: in some people, inflammation seems to precede depression and heart disease; in others, the disorders seem to cause or exacerbate the inflammation” (Rodriguez, 16). So, will you die from boredom? The answer, in my opinion, is maybe, but probably not. Will you die from stress? The answer is, more than likely. The bigger question is, why would you want to be depressed in the first place?
Cited Works -
- Fleming, Mythology of Work, 35. Other shocking stats about this in Rutger Bregman, Utopia, For Realists (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 41.
- Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions., 2018. Print.
- Karasek, R. A., & Theorell, T. (1990). Healthy work: Stress, productivity and the reconstruction of working life. New York, NY: Basic Books.
- Rodriguez, Tori. “Treating Depression Early May Protect the Heart.” Scientific American Mind, vol. 26, no. 3, May 2015, p. 16. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0515–16a.