The mental health impact of un/underemployment


I’m underemployed. There. I said it. And I hate it. And I’m not the only one.

It’s one of the reasons why I laugh in the face of so-called unemployment statistics. People like me don’t show on them. A number of other people I know don’t show on them. Like me, they are somehow able to explain away to others what they do to hide the fact that in the wider economy there are not enough suitable jobs [a loaded term I concede] to go around.

I still don’t regret leaving the civil service when I did. I needed the break and the time away. I needed the independent space to think. The blogposts that I’ve written since August 2011 were in part the result of seven years worth of not having a public opinion on politics – remembering that approximately half of that time I spent in politically-restricted posts.

I’m not entirely blameless for being in this situation. Could have I prepared better for past interviews, been more proactive and speculative in applications or in searches for commissions, or put more effort in? Of course. At the same time I’m still trying to get a feel for what I am capable of post-mental-health-crisis. Hence I’m not looking for this post to be a “Woe is me” post.

Losing the day-to-day interactions with other people

It’s one of the things that comes up in retirement. Moving from a world where you might be surrounded by people in a hive of activity to one where you don’t need to get out of bed in the morning can come as one hell of a culture shock. The same I is true for those who, like me moved from an environment surrounded by people to one that, in the grand scheme of things is a solitary existence. That’s not to say I don’t meet up regularly with other people – I do and am most grateful for it. But such things can never compensate for having both a regular activity and a greater purpose that said activity might be working towards.

Wanting to do stuff, but not having the money

Every time there is something interesting on in London, I’m like “I’d love to do that, but I can’t afford the train fare/entrance fees” etc. I touched on this in a post during 2011 political party conference season. There are a whole host of debates and discussions that people around the country would love to contribute to – but we’re all priced out of them. It’s only very recently that I’ve got the feel of just how London-centric everything is. Prior to living and working in London, it was less of an issue for me simply because I wasn’t aware of all of these things going on. You could say what the eye can’t see the heart doesn’t yearn for. But now that I’ve become aware of otherwise very interesting events going on hosted say by the Hansard Society or the Institute for Government – or even the Trades Union Congress, it feels all the more frustrating that more of us cannot take part because it’s so expensive.

Fighting the black dog

It’s very difficult when personal circumstances are as they are in the wider economic context. One bad headline after another doesn’t make anything easier for people. When people do head to the doctors because of the downward spiral that can often accompany un/underemployment, the tools/levers that doctors have are very limited. “I don’t want to go on anti-depressants, I want a job!” I’ve heard a number of people say. I don’t know what the data is on the number of people who are on anti-depressants who are unemployed – citing that unemployment as being a major cause of their depression, but it would be interesting to see.

For me, there are two strands. The first is finding productive things to occupy myself day-to-day. It’s all too easy to spend an entire day on Twitter – I’ve done it more times than is sensible. The second is finding that broader purpose that, since 2009 I’ve somehow lost.

On the first strand, I’ve blogged earlier about social media not switching off. I was reading a book today about social media for ‘not for profits’ and it flagged up in no uncertain terms about the need to take time out from social media and the internet. It has addictive traits to it…traits that I think helped contribute to my own breakdown earlier this year. Hence why I’m trying (but still failing) to spend a little bit more time reading offline rather than online.

Linking the first strand to the second, I’ve got a “here are the things that I think I need to learn – and want to learn” list, but without that broader purpose it’s very difficult (for someone with the attention span of a fairy on super-charged sucrose) to sit down and spend day-after-day learning it without the structure that I guess you’d find in a classroom.

Moving onto that broader purpose, I’ve sort of lost mine. No longer being in the civil service I’m still scratching away to find out where I want to get to and how I’m supposed to get there. Lacking that purpose can be devastating for morale. Especially as the road often feels so lonely and isolated compared to some of the high-fliers I often find myself interacting with. Sometimes that just compounds the gloom.

What does the data say?

I don’t know. It would be an interesting research project though – tracking the mental health impact of those who have lost their jobs. What is the existing baseline for the sample? (i.e. How many people were already experiencing some sort of mental health distress?) How did this figure change over time? What was the impact on individuals and their families? What was the healthcare cost to the state? What was the loss to society in terms of the lost potential from the individuals concerned?

In terms of policy, it also makes me wonder how many of our political masters and their advisers have experienced unemployment or underemployment. One where you had to really fight tooth and nail to get back up and running again with the odds stacked against you. That’s not to say former MPs haven’t struggled – Helen Clark and the late Fiona Jones being two examples of backbench MPs with short parliamentary careers definitely not going down the standard route of political consultancy to big business that is the depressing norm of senior MPs and former ministers. How many struggled prior to reaching the heights that they did? How many senior MPs, front-benchers or ministers can articulate the black cloud of life devoid of activity and a purpose? Few of the current set I fear.

I’ll refrain from going into detail about how to solve the unemployment problem (Like I’m going to solve it in a blogpost! Ha!), other than to say that the current situation of the rich getting richer while the rest of us struggle in this economic cataclysm is unsustainable. It’s going to take a lot more than a few social mobility indicators to change things around.


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