Mental Health in the Workplace: How Capitalism Destroys Leisure

You know that feeling you get when you know you should be studying or working, but you’re watching Netflix instead? That gut-wrenching guilt that comes not just with procrastination, but also with doing anything with your free time that’s not school/work related? That’s a result of capitalism.

In my article In Defense of Anarchism, I discussed the economic and political disadvantages of capitalism, and now it’s time to discuss the personal toll capitalist oppression takes on the individual. In short, capitalism kills leisure time. In a capitalist system, there is a constant pressure on workers to be profitable, to be marketable. So, even when you are off the clock, you feel like you need to be productive and do something. Otherwise, why are you even here?

The problem with this is, work becomes literally your entire life, your entire reason for existing. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: at the pinnacle of the pyramid is the need for self-actualization. For Marx, this could be achieved through work: “labor must become not only a means of life, but also the highest want in life” (from The Communist Manifesto). However, in capitalism, work is what impedes us from self-actualization. In a system that thrives off of inequality, an hour of a worker’s time does not equal one hour of a capitalist’s time. Essentially, capitalists earn more as they work less. This leads to unequal distribution and accumulation of wealth, which in turn causes decreasing returns for workers. This inequality is a problem at the collective class level, and the effect on the level of the individual is that workers feel disillusioned by work and alienated by the system that sees them as worth less than their bosses.

In the 21st century, the monotony of a 9-to-5 job and the futility of trying to become rich through hard work has a real negative impact on mental health. Burnout, defined by Merriam-Webster as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration”, is a serious concern among corporate employees. A 2018 Gallup study found that out of 7,500 full-time employees, 23% reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes. A lot of corporate jobs are so mentally demanding that employees are advised to compartmentalize their anxieties and the pressure they feel. Really, compartmentalization is a cognitive defense mechanism caused by conflicting internal values. It’s something that our subconscious does automatically in response to harm, although we can also actively choose to compartmentalize certain aspects of our lives to maintain emotional health. Overall, I believe it’s a healthy practice when done voluntarily and in moderation, but when it becomes a necessary tool for survival in the workplace, we have a problem. What capitalists suggest is that if your work interferes with your personal priorities, moral values or overall mental health, you just have to separate them into distinct boxes in your mind and you’re good to go to become more productive! This way, compartmentalizing becomes another kind of division of labor, this time specifically for your mind, thus dehumanizing you even more. People who experience burnout are generally told to take a break from work, go to the gym more, or take a vacation. Basically, they are told to focus on personal growth outside of work, because the lack thereof is what leads to burnout in the first place. Other than stress, and frequently because of it, inflexible work hours lead to depression and anxiety.

The issue is that with capitalism money is the ultimate prize, the primary goal of life. This means that any work that doesn’t aspire to earn money is immediately delegitimized. Even university majors that aren’t STEM subjects such as the arts are seen as useless and lesser, because “what are you going to do with that degree?” Following hobbies that you’re not particularly good at becomes a point of personal failure, because why bother drawing when you’re bad at it? You can’t earn money from it; you can’t monetize it. Your work is unprofitable, and unprofitable equals useless. Right? According to capitalism, yes. But that’s a very unhealthy way of thinking, so we absolutely have to reverse that. The point of hobbies is that they don’t necessarily have to involve a goal; they’re just what you enjoy doing in your free time. You’re allowed to be unproductive sometimes. It’s okay to “waste” your time on books, shows or movies (in moderation!) to let off steam every once in a while. When it comes to creative activities, it’s okay to draw terribly, write horrible poetry, or completely butcher Beethoven’s 5th on the piano. No matter how hard capitalism tries to convince you that your value depends on your being profitable, you are more than a product. Now, the question becomes: how can we avoid viewing ourselves as so?

On a systematic level, the solution would be shorter work days. The new prime minister of Finland suggests replacing the five-day 9-to-5 with a six-hour workday and four-day workweek. This would allow workers to have a life outside of work and be fulfilled both professionally and emotionally. Mental and emotional health would increase, hence leading to higher productivity. At the end of the day it’s both in the workers’ and capitalists’ interest to cut down work hours, so why hasn’t it happened already? Firstly, workers around the globe generally lack the bargaining power to negotiate work hours if the government refuses to do it. Secondly, because the success of a company is measured by returns to shareholders, workers are forced to provide labor for the same amount of time or even more, for less and less money. All in all, if the system not only allows but encourages and thrives off of corruption, workers are bound to be treated unfairly; so we must change the system altogether. Voting for socialist heads of state like Sanna Marin of Finland would be a good start.

On an individual level, we have to learn to separate work from life in a healthy manner. The first step is to make sure “you work to live, not live to work”[1]. This entails participating in fulfilling activities other than work such as certain hobbies, sports or passion projects. Keep your work life and personal life separate—I know that’s basically compartmentalization, and like I said, at this point in time it’s essential for survival. Keep track of your mental health; see a professional if you feel that’s best. Talk about it with your coworkers. Be open about your struggles, because I assure you everyone can relate in some form or another. And above all, never, ever forget: you are more than a product.

[1] John McDonnell in his speech to the Labour Party Conference

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