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What works and what doesn't: How a job affects mental health

Monday 3rd March 2014

I have been on some form of benefit through Work and Income for most of the last five years. I have been on the unemployment benefit, the sickness benefit and am now on the all-encompassing Jobseekers benefit.

I also suffer from anxiety and severe depressive episodes.

Work and Income was never short of advice in regards to my illness. Whenever I went to my local service centre, I would sit in the waiting room surrounded by quasi-inspirational, but really just condescending posters of smiling people, with phrases such as: “Thinking I couldn’t do it was my biggest disability”.

Meetings with case managers at Work and Income frequently featured a unhelpful and unsolicited medical advice, ranging from exercise to yoga to meditation to eating correctly to doing volunteer work. But by far their most common go to line was “Employment is the best path to recovery”.

Eamonn Marra outside Work and Income
Eamonn Marra: "I worried that one day I would attend an interview and be asked 'So why has this Bachelor of Arts taken you six years?'"


Employment can have a huge effect on mental health, but we cannot only recognise its positive contribution without admitting it has the ability to be a negative one as well. Work and Income’s mantra is not completely wrong; employment has been a huge step in my increasing mental health over the past eight months. However, on the flipside, an extremely unhealthy work environment in my late teens caused huge damage to my mental health, and contributed to years out of the workforce.

In December 2009 I worked for a security company car park at a large mall in Christchurch, directing the Christmas traffic into available parks. It was hands down one of the worst experiences of my life. It had all the tropes of a bad job: long hours, low pay, stress, dealing with stressed and rude customers, minimal breaks, and little real human interaction. But by far the worst thing was the contempt we were treated both by the mall and the security company.

Any complaints to and from the security company were blamed on the unapproachable, faceless mall. The mall was a faceless entity who kept us under constant vigilance through security cameras and plainclothes spies. We were separated and unable to talk to one another, so any collective power we could have had was quickly quashed. Any and all problems or complaints were dealt with purely on a one-on-one basis to someone who would have no power to change the situation.

Our morale shrunk everyday as we were told we are useless and replaceable, but many of us were unable to quit without financial repercussions due to our being on fixed-term contracts. All problems were responded with threats of docked pay or being fired and replaced. We lost our humanity over this period. There was no pride to be had in this job; we were cheap labour that was told we weren’t even worth the minimum wage we were being paid. While my labour was cheap for both the mall and the security company, it cost far more for both me and, eventually, the taxpayer.

Because after this experience, my esteem dropped completely, and I fell into one of my most depressive and self-destructive periods. I was under the impression that not only was I worthless, unemployable, and had no redeemable qualities (this means payable, because the only value we give anything is a monetary one), but that the whole concept of employment was by its very nature exploitative and evil, and I was unsure I could ever survive in that world. No number of inspirational posters on the walls of my local Work and Income could get me out of this rut.

I spent over three years not only unemployed, but afraid of work. This kept me on the now-defunct sickness benefit. The idea of applying for a job was enough to send me into a panic attack. Over the years, I arranged and rearranged my CV, and wrote cover letters for dozens of jobs that I was too afraid to actually send in.

The thing that I was most afraid of was having to admit to an employer that I had severe anxiety problems and potentially could not meet some of the requirements they expected of me. One cannot casually drop “Managed to attend university one day a week throughout years of anxiety” into the ‘Key Achievements’ section of your CV. I worried that one day I would attend an interview and be asked “So why has this Bachelor of Arts taken you six years?” or “Why do you have such a large hole in your employment history in your early twenties?”.

Being open with your situation is vital to live a happy and fulfilling life with any mental health issues, but in order to even be considered for most jobs in this competitive environment we are forced to hide something that is so important to keep out in the open.

But then in June 2013, I managed to get a job at a small cinema in Wellington, purely because my flatmate worked there and they needed some casual staff over the upcoming film festival. Then, luckily, a couple of staff left shortly after the festival finished, and I was able to keep the job.

And over time those WINZ posters finally started to make sense: I could do it. I was very good at my job – and, what’s more, a job in hospitality, which up until then had been one of my greatest fears. I became a great barista. I learned the art of a perfect ice cream scoop. I charmed old ladies. I was appreciated by the customers and my colleagues. And it was mostly because I worked under the best and kindest boss I could hope for.

She worked on the ground floor with the front-of-house staff. We shared the responsibility and the pride that came from work well done; she made sure that the staff felt good about a good day and never blamed us when things fell apart. I felt fine telling her about my condition. She was accepting of the fact that sometimes I would spill wine when my shaking was getting out of hand. I took pride in my work and she was proud of my work. I worked hard, but unlike the carparking job, I did it because I wanted to, not because of fear of retribution. I felt proud of myself and of the workplace.

Unfortunately, a few months into this job, there was a change of ownership and my boss was made redundant, and in came a new manager and more importantly new management technique. Morale at the cinema dropped instantly.

There was no more sharing the ground floor work with the manager; there was no casual and friendly conversation between us. The hierarchy that felt unimportant before was strengthened, and put front and centre in any conversation with the new management. Suddenly I was less comfortable showing my anxiety around work. When you see people like you referred to as being “sensitive” or “fragile” with a smirk or an eye roll, it can make you not want to be open about your own mental state.

My pride in my work dropped. I still loved the cinema; I loved the customers, and they loved me. I was still good at my job. But I was making more and more mistakes. We were also severely understaffed, which sent me into sweaty shaky panics that often left customers asking “Are you all right?” The level of service drastically fell, while my anxiety rose and rose.

Frustration grew as all of the shifts were offered as if they were gifts from the company to me. Whenever it was a slow day, we were reminded of how much our wage had cost the business. We were assured that we were lucky to be working, let alone paid. That didn’t make me feel like I was useful; it made me feel totally unappreciated.

 I could not leave work behind at the cinema, and it began to interfere with my personal life, my dreams, and my everyday conversations

As I was given less and less respect, my frustration, stress and anger rose. I could not leave work behind at the cinema, and it began to interfere with my personal life, my dreams, and my everyday conversations. It severely affected my mood, my mental health, my friendships and my home life. Even my finances and health were impacted as I was driven to short-term ways of coping such as alcohol and fast food.

Eventually, after a particularly frustrating shift, I quit.

Work and Income are not happy.

I am no longer meeting my work commitments. But I am feeling good again. I have regained some sense of autonomy; I have regained control of my life. I was lucky to leave before the job wore me down into the kind of state that kept me out of employment for years.

I know that I’m lucky to be in a position to do this: the majority of the workers in this country have too many responsibilities and needs, like dependants and mortgages, to be able to leave a job that wears them down day after day.

I was angry, but now I no longer hold my old manager responsible for this; it is his way of dealing with a struggling business. It’s a common management technique, looking at staff purely in terms of financial contribution, a positive and negative on the balance sheet. The fact that management is taught in the commerce departments at universities reflects the huge problem with what we as a society feel is the objective of management: that it is an economic pursuit designed to maximise profit.

We cannot, on one hand, claim that employment can fix our personal problems as in the Work and Income posters, while on the other accept common management practices that treat employment as purely a financial transaction.

Clearly employment is a huge part of people’s lives, and one that gives us a sense of purpose, pride, an idea of who we are. We do not walk away from it unscathed with a pocket full of cash. Everything we do has repercussions on our mental health, but especially areas on which we are financially and emotionally dependent and spend a great deal of our time.

I am not of the opinion that mental illness is purely “bad brain chemistry” that should be fixed with medication and therapy. The way we treat each other is the most profound effect on mental health we have, and as long as we treat each other as means of making profit rather than as human beings with human needs, we are contributing to a problem that can be easily minimised. Many of us define ourselves by our jobs, and if we are told by our work environments that we are useless, unworthy or lucky to even be there, that spreads to our senses of self. This is not just an issue for those of us who have mental illnesses – a healthy work environment is essential for all of us. It increases productivity, it minimises the cost of healthcare, and increases a sense of community and care for what we do.

Dedicated to Kate Larkindale

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.


After this piece was published, Sandra Kirikiri, Director Welfare Reform at Work and Income, responded:

Managing a mental illness while working or looking for a job can be tough.

We also know that with the right type of help people can find and maintain a job, which for many can be beneficial in managing their condition.

Work and Income has made some changes in how we support jobseekers with a mental illness. Depending on a person’s circumstances we can offer more individualised help to so we can better understand their situation and what’s needed to help overcome the barriers they face to finding work.

If you need help, come and talk to us.

Join the discussion »

“Sadly I feel as though this is a common story that is not heard enough. I struggled a lot after graduation in jobs. I was sexually harassed and accused of stealing. I was paid minimum wage and felt like a failure by elders for not having a job that related to my field of study. When I received the red cross benefit following the Christchurch earthquakes I felt judged by 50% of the people I told yet I desperately needed the money after loosing almost all my possessions in the EQ. It shows what an ugly world we live in that people can remove any kind of empathy from basic human relationships. Most people should know that happy staff = a happy business that prospers but I think there is a considerable lack of education and awareness around that. A recent job had a manager that shouted and yelled and called staff idiots. He blamed his behaviour on his stress but down with him he took many hopeful graduates. It seems that the young are often victims of this behaviour due to their venerability in the job market. IMO EAP needs to become a compulsory standard for workplaces. Thanks for sharing Eamon.” — Clara Sweetman

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Eamonn Marra is a writer, comedian, student and DJ. He lives in Wellington, but parts of him remain in Christchurch and parts of Christchurch remain in him.
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