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Are you not just sick of work?

As new statistics show more sick days caused by stress, Ben Greenhalgh asks: what is the human cost when austerity-driven cuts spread a heavy load too thin?

February 25, 2014
3 min read

way outImage by Steve Chou Photos on flick.com

I have always been of the mind-set that I work to live. Despite that, we work for most of our existence, and we hope that a lifetime of toil will be rewarded with the prize of a short period of leisure. However, what if current working conditions, stoked by ‘calculated’ austerity measures, simply become too much to bear? What then for the modern worker?

Since the financial crisis, public and private sector roles have been slashed. Beforehand, when a person left a position, another similar position was created or the existing one filled by a keen graduate or determined job-seeker. However, since austerity took hold, institutions have been readily absorbing workloads by handing what used to be included in a now-extinct position to existing staff.

Teachers now cover more classes. Hospitals are on the brink, unable to cope with demand. Instead of the millions of unemployed people filling potential roles, existing staff are asked to cover more and more holes often in excess of their professional and physical capacity. New positions seem only to be added if they incorporate five past ones. In short, people are asked to do more, for no more.

People fear losing their jobs if they stand and say, ‘this is too much’. Why? Because they feel others would easily replace them. There are certainly enough people willing to attempt a multitude of burdens for employers to be unconcerned about getting rid of a ‘difficult’ employee.

The result of too much work spread over too few workers is simple: those who are employed are having their mental and physical health detrimentally affected. The sickness of conceptual austerity therefore translates quickly to the very real physicality of the human condition. In fact the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that there are around 160 million victims of work-related illnesses annually.

The physics of spreading a heavy load over too thin a surface is that the structure comes under strain. When workers are treated like machines rather than human beings, the effect is very much the same. The top reason for causes of work-related stress, according to a 2013 Health and Safety Executive report, was workload. This included tight deadlines, too much work, pressure or responsibility with an estimated prevalence of 186,000 recorded cases.

People are not machines. They are far more creative, powerful and valuable – and it is these qualities which diminish slowly as more pressure is loaded upon each individual for the sake of financial and economic targets.

We once questioned our reliance upon machines, fearing that one day they would threaten our very existence. Sad as it is, we are fast being turned into machines ourselves – our passion, minds and indeed our very humanity are beginning to get lost under stacks of A4, paperclips and deadlines.


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