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Angela Tilby: Work is good for people’s mental health

01 December 2023


THERE is something disturbing in recent reporting of the growing numbers of people who are unable to work and are claiming disability-related benefits — a number that includes young people suffering from a variety of mental-health conditions.

Many people are apparently so anxious or depressed that they are categorised as permanently unwell. This is bad for our economy, because we miss their contribution, while their benefits cost all of us.

Not working is also bad for those who report unwell. Life without work is not a permanent holiday. Those who are too sick to work suffer from more than their illness, because they are deprived of the mental-health benefits that come from regular hours, personal achievement, and the variety of relationships which work generates. Many of the long-term sick and disabled understand this all too well, of course, and would do anything to be able to rejoin the workforce and to pursue a fulfilling occupation.

But there are others, especially since Covid, who have lost confidence in their ability to cope in the workplace. Once or twice, I have myself struggled to get back to work after the debilitating effects of a virus. A bout of illness or a panic attack can raise existential questions that are not easily answered. We can frighten ourselves into genuine incapacity, and regard ourselves as disabled, when we are actually imprisoned by our own fears and the tricks that they play on us.

I am not sure how much it helps to provide medical-sounding labels that set people apart, when their individual characteristics would previously have been accepted as just part of the human mix. I know people who have felt relief at being told that they are “neurodiverse” or “on the spectrum”, and I can understand that; but a description is not a diagnosis, and even a diagnosis is not an identity. The worry comes when having a label limits an individual’s ability to feel that they can cope with tasks that others perform, and even prevents their taking on agency and responsibility.

Christian faith would suggest that our normal condition in this vale of tears is not one of boundless energy, creativity, and fulfilment, but a struggle with the everyday besetting temptations of our mortal nature. These include include excessive fear, harmful appetites, deeds and thoughts of violence against others and ourselves, and debilitating apathy.

The sickness that does most potential harm is in our very nature. Getting up in the morning and struggling to work benefits everybody, ourselves included. Advent comes with its warning and promise: it is time to wake out of sleep — although Christian faith also recognises, that, while, some respond well to an alarm, others need waking gently with a cup of tea.

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