Worker exploitation and the mental health crisis

Workers are facing a mental health crisis stemming from exploitation at the hands of the capitalist system.

Working long hours for meager pay and mistreatment at the hands of bosses can lead to increased risks of anxiety, depression and high suicide rates for workers, according to recent mental health studies.

The study “Workplace Wellness Report: Mind the Workplace,” published by Mental Health America (MHA), measured “workplace stress levels and overall mental health” for 17,000 workers surveyed over a two-year period. It concluded that workplace stress increases the risk of mental impairment.

According to the MHA report, workers who experience the heaviest toll on mental health are in the industries of manufacturing, retail, and food and beverage. These professions fall under the categories of workers who are underpaid, underappreciated and overworked.

The University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center highlights the following workplace stressors: job strain, work-life interference, workplace discrimination and harassment, and job insecurity.

Three Stanford University scholars concluded in a 2015 study that work injustice and worker-family conflict have the same impact on health as doing shift work and putting in long hours. Researchers Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stefanos Zenios and Joel Goh also concluded that “the stressor with the biggest impact overall is lack of health insurance. It ranks high in both increasing mortality and health care costs.”

Additionally, “Another big driver of early death is economic insecurity, captured in part by unemployment, layoffs and low job control.” (Stanford Graduate School of Business)

Job insecurity is one of the biggest stress factors for workers. The fear of unemployment keeps many people up at night, as they wonder how they will survive in today’s cut-throat economy. As noted by the American Psychological Association, “Adding to the pressures that workers face are new bosses, computer surveillance of production, fewer health and retirement benefits, and the feeling they have to work longer and harder just to maintain their current economic status.”

Reports such as the MHA report are useful, but they often suffer from a fatal flaw. Often the so-called “solutions” put forward boil down to encouraging employers to boost the self-esteem and confidence of the workers — rather than offer concrete security, such as higher wages or health insurance. These researchers overlook or ignore the exploitative nature of capitalism, for it is the nature of this system to force workers to sell their labor-power to the lowest bidder.

Employers maximize their profits by cutting labor costs. They achieve this by downsizing, offshoring and automation. Such concerns become a burden and mental health is put at risk.

As Workers World contributing editor Fred Goldstein writes in his important 2008 book “Low-Wage Capitalism”: “Capitalism, the system of production for profit instead of human need, is incompatible with such notions as making the health and well-being of those who produce all the wealth and perform all the services the priority of social and economic organization.”

Workers can benefit in many ways from the fight for a living wage and the right to a union, such as the Fight for $15 movement launched in recent years. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has stated that if workers organize unions they can secure wage increases, access to health care, improved workplace safety and better hours. (“How today’s unions help working people,” Aug. 24)

Those who produce the wealth should not have to pay for it by sacrificing their mental and physical well-being. In order to confront this crisis, workers must confront the very system that is endangering their lives.

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