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 we 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.