Tom Hanks, the actor, told a story about a time he went to see a neurologist to find out how to keep his brain healthy and give himself “a slight edge on not becoming senile” on Desert Island Discs in 2016.
His then-co-host Kirsty Young said the doctor told him something “so profound” that he has told everyone else since: “Never retire.” But don’t give up on finding that spark that has always interested you. Do less work and don’t work at the same speed.
It is well known that work is good for our brains and mental health in particular. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that “decent work is good for mental health” because it gives people a way to make a living, a sense of purpose, and the chance to make friends and feel like they belong in their community.
This month, work was in the news when Chancellor Jeremy Hunt suggested a “back-to-work” plan to deal with the rise in unemployment caused by the pandemic.
The government has promised to spend £2.5 billion over the next five years on support programs to help. In order to get people back to work, the sanctions would require them to do work placements or lose their benefits. The mental health organization Mind said that these actions were “deeply worrying” and that they could make people’s mental health worse.
But this wasn’t the case for Liz (not her real name), who felt better after going back to work after 13 years off. “When my first child was born, I quit my job because we couldn’t pay for the local nursery fees and no one in our family could help.”
“I had postpartum depression after the birth of my second child. I felt lonely and anxious at home, and things got worse when my kids started school.”
“After my oldest child started middle school, I decided to get re-trained in garden design and started doing work in the area.” My mental health got a lot better, and I discovered a reason for living. I loved talking to other people.”
“Work is good for you in many ways,” says Prof. Cary Cooper, who teaches health and organizational psychology at Manchester Business School. “Studies have shown that work can keep you mentally busy, which can help keep older workers from getting dementia.
“Keeping your brain active is important. That doesn’t mean you have to work full-time forever, but if you retire at age 60 and do nothing, that’s not good for your brain health.”
Dr. Maria Kordowicz, a chartered psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society, says that women who go back to work also report a number of benefits.
She says, “This includes having an identity beyond domesticity, a better sense of worth, and a place to learn and be intellectually stimulated.” “New social connections, a sense of purpose, and less loneliness have all been mentioned in the research as benefits for older people going back to work.”
A new study from the University of Cambridge suggests that working just one day a week may be good for your mental health. This is because work gives us a feeling of identity, structure, and social contacts.
Prof. Cooper agrees and says that work not only keeps your mind busy but also keeps your social life going. “A workplace can meet your social needs, which is important for your health, as more and more studies show,” he says.
The WHO said earlier this month that loneliness is a major global health threat and that it is like having 15 cigarettes every day in terms of how it affects our health. It has now set up an international committee that will work for three years because it found that the pandemic made people feel more alone.
Prof. Cooper says, “Work is where we build relationships; it’s where we talk to people, even if it’s just small talk over the water cooler.” He also says that all relationships, no matter how short-lived, are good for your health.
A new study in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry supports this. It found that having a strong community full of casual social ties can be good for you. These could be with your barista at the coffee shop, your train companion, or your coworkers.
But, as the WHO guidelines say, “decent work” is the key word when it comes to the health benefits of work.
We know that work has many perks, but Prof. Cooper says, “Of course, some types of workplaces can be bad for our health.” A workplace where people are bullied, where management is toxic, or where workers feel like they don’t have much control over their hours, job, or advancement can be very bad.
As part of her coaching work, Dr. Kodowicz says, “I’ve helped people who were burned out, and the main causes were unmanageable workloads, toxic coworkers and management, and long hours.”
“There are also jobs that are hard on the body and hurt our health over time.”
Prof. Cooper says that being unhappy at work and not being able to leave because of a lack of opportunities, professional training, or child care is also bad and causes more stress as they say, “you hate your job but can’t find another one.”
He says that there is often a “blue-collar ceiling” for people with low-paying jobs or a “motherhood ceiling” for parents (usually women) who can’t move up in their careers because of the cost of child care or the limits of being a parent.
Cooper says, “Work keeps you socially active, but if your job doesn’t meet your social needs because of how it’s set up or because the hours are long, rigid, or not social, that can cancel out the benefits.”
He uses the example of how more and more workplaces require employees to work from home, which can make people feel alone. Prof. Cooper says that order and a sense of purpose are undeniably helpful as long as your work meets these criteria.
His words, “Humans thrive on structure,” say I. “During the pandemic, we saw that people had a hard time with not having it when they were stuck at home all day.” Structure, like going to bed and getting up at the same time every night, eating at the same time every day, or starting work at the same time every day, has been shown to improve health.
It has also been found that people who have a feeling of purpose, whether it comes from work, family, or their community, tend to be happier, healthier, and smarter overall. A study from Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York in 2015 found that having a strong sense of meaning may make you less likely to get heart disease or a stroke.
According to Prof. Cooper, “I talk to people who may not be very well paid, but if they’re part of a team, helping people, or doing something they believe in, they have a sense of purpose, which is good for their health.” “There are many great things about finding joy in what you do.”
And as Hanks’s doctor said, “Never give up the search for that spark that interests you.”