There is another pandemic.
Depression, drug abuse, and suicide are its symptoms.
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer reported the grim story last month: “The situation is most stark in British Columbia, where there have been over 100 illicit drug toxicity deaths for six consecutive months from March to August 2020,” says Dr. Theresa Tam in her State of Public Health report: “The highest monthly death toll, in June 2020 was 181, up from 76 in June 2019.” In July, B.C. paramedics got 2,700 calls for drug overdoses, an increase of 35 per cent – 700 calls above the monthly average. That is 700 more people screaming into the phone demanding an ambulance to save someone from overdosing.
Ontario and Alberta opioid deaths have spiked 50 per cent during the lockdown. Statistics Canada has reported the percentage of Canadians reporting good mental health dropping to 48 per cent this year from 68 per cent in 2018.
“Calls to one national suicide prevention line have risen 200 per cent over last year,” reports the CBC. Conservative MP Todd Doherty’s parliamentary motion calling for a new national suicide prevention call-in line (988) could save many who suffer in these tormented times.
But it all raises the question: why are so many so desperate?
Part of the answer is worklessness, the pandemic no one discusses. It is the pandemic of people losing the purpose, pride, and place to go that comes from working. Sure, the media report a lot on unemployment, but not the devastating effect on the health and happiness of people deprived of work for long periods of time. It is a much larger pandemic now that our jobless rate is the second highest in the G7. And it could be just as deadly as a virus.
About 9 million people lost work since COVID began and rightly got the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Many, despite their best efforts, have no way back to employment.
And replacing their incomes — while necessary — is not the same as replacing their work. “Statistics Canada found lower life satisfaction among unemployed Canadians and noted that this relationship is about more than just money,” [emphasis added] the Chief Public Health Officer reported last month. “This is echoed by systematic reviews exploring unemployment and mental health, unemployment and health, and unemployment and mortality risk.”
Put bluntly: worklessness is lethal.
It can lead to deadly drug overdoses, according to a 2017 working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. “Our main findings are that opioid deaths and [emergency department] visits are predicted to rise when county unemployment rates temporarily increase,” the authors write. “As the unemployment rate increases by one percentage point in a given county, the opioid-death-rate rises by 3.6 percent, and emergency-room visits rise by 7 percent,” writes Olga Khazan of The Atlantic.
A recent University of Calgary study found that a one per cent increase in unemployment boosted the suicide rate by 2.8 percent in Alberta and 2.1 percent across Canada. A study in The Lancet calculated that a one per cent jump in the unemployment rate increases suicides 0.79 percent in Europe and 0.99 percent in the U.S.
We warn people all the time of workplace hazards but less about the health hazards of not working. Researchers studied “310 men laid off when a ball bearings manufacturer shut down during the 1981-82 recession. Those still jobless after two years reported greater stress, poorer overall health, more visits to physicians and more medications taken than when they were working.” [emphasis added]
If worklessness had a warning label, it would read like this: “Unemployment raises the chance by about a third that a man will die in the next decade,” to quote the former editor of the British Medical Journal, Dr. Richard Smith. “And for those in middle age — with the biggest commitments — the chance doubles. The men are most likely to die from suicide, cancer, and accidents and violence.”
And the correlation does equal causation. A study co-authored by economist Tim Diette found that when “resilient” people “without previous bouts of poor mental health” experienced long-term unemployment, they were 125 per cent more likely than those who kept working to “experience their first ever bout of poor emotional well-being.” Worklessness came first. Mental breakdown followed. The former caused the latter.
And losing work is about more than losing money. “Economists Andrew Clark and Andrew Oswald have documented the huge drop in happiness associated with unemployment – about 10 times larger than that associated with a reduction in earnings from the $50,000–$75,000 range to the $35,000–$50,000 bracket,” wrote Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser.
That’s because happiness takes work – literally. Far from being a misery needed to pay the bills, work is a basic human need. It activates our brains and bodies in service of others. It makes us players not observers; powerful not powerless. As the poet William Ernest Henley wrote: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
A piece by the Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks titled Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded states that “virtually all the world’s major religions teach that diligent work in the service of others is our highest nature and thus lies at the centre of a happy life.” Martin Luther King called it “the dignity of labour.”
That is why we must end the war on work – the endless governmental penalties that block businesses from hiring and workers from earning.
Take the tax and benefit system, which abruptly claws back child benefits, social assistance and other supports as the working poor start to earn income, making them worse off when they work more. “Newly released documents show Finance Department officials calculated that workers near the bottom of the income ladder are dinged hardest…” wrote reporter Jordan Press.
“If that worker is a single parent with one child, this rate can rise to over 60 percent, and with two or more children, rises to 80 percent or more,” Finance Canada finds. Because these effective tax rates only apply to labour, the government is imposing a much heavier burden on the output of workers than on the output of machines, a financial incentive to automate away jobs.
For centuries, the left has complained that too much income goes to shareholders and not enough to workers. The world’s most prominent left-of-centre economist, Thomas Piketty, has argued that returns on capital have outgrown the rest of the economy for decades, leaving relatively less for wages. A simple and direct solution is for governments to lower labour taxes and let workers keep more of their wages.
The war on work also includes federal government obstacles blocking First Nations communities from developing resources or opening businesses. That perpetuates the colonial powers of federal bureaucrats and politicians while denying industrious people the pride of a job and the independence of a paycheque.
And don’t forget about workers who lost hope in life as their federal government slowly “phases out” their well-paying energy sector jobs. How many took their lives?
Removing these governmental obstacles to hiring and work would not only unleash our economy’s potential and repair damaged government balance sheets but bring better health and greater happiness to countless Canadians.
To restore hope and happiness, we must honour work and workers: reform taxes and benefits to reward effort, free businesses to pay more wages, let labour keep more of the bread it has earned, and unleash the mighty force of 20 million Canadian workers.
A job brings them dollars and dignity, paycheques and purpose, a burden and a blessing, a good living and a good life.