happy.jpg(UPDATE) There’s been a bit of an uproar over a recent Australian study that found working a crummy job is worse for your mental health than not working at all.

Study participants who transitioned from being unemployed to being employed in a poor-quality job showed a worsening of their mental health, the researchers, from The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, say.

Maybe it’s me, but didn’t we already know this? A bad job makes people unhappy. A good job makes people happy. If you leave a bad job and spend some time unemployed, the one saving grace is that you’re not at the bad job, and that can make some of us happier. That seems to be what the researchers found, but I’m basing this on media reports.

The study, and the way the press has been covering the research, got me thinking about whether we’ve all just become a bunch of whiners. I’ve been spending some time with a sanitation worker lately for a story I’m writing about government workers, and this guy’s job is pretty disgusting and difficult, but he wasn’t complaining.

“I have to work,” he said. “A man don’t work he don’t eat.”

This wasn’t his dream job. In fact, he laughed out loud when I asked him if he had a dream job in mind. “I’m 44 years old,” he said. “I stopped dreaming about jobs. I work to live and support myself and my family.”

Is he happy? I’m not a psychologist, but he seemed content to me. But let’s say his job was impacting his mental health, then what? People often do jobs they hate, or don’t quite love, for a paycheck. I’m not saying you shouldn’t find a job you love, but all this focus on work happiness is making me unhappy.

There are endless books written about the topic, and endless experts telling you how to make your life better and happier. Alas, the reality is many of us don’t love what we do but still have to do it no matter how it impacts our happiness quotient.

Sorry happiness gurus.

(UPDATE) As for the mental health study, I just heard back from one of the authors, Peter Butterworth with the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University, and he stressed that “We’re not advocating that people shouldn’t work.”

And, he continued,

“From a mental health perspective, there is an enormous amount of evidence showing the benefits that flow from being employed vs unemployed.”

But, he added,

“There is also another body of research that shows how the characteristics of work – including psychosocial factors – influence health. What we’ve done is to combine these 2 fields of research and found that the poorest quality work does not lead to any mental health benefits over unemployment. Certainly long term unemployment has a significant cost to a person’s mental health – but so to does employment in the poorest quality jobs. It’s likely to be the case that the benefits of being employed do not outweigh the costs associated with working in such a poor quality job.

There’s more work to be done looking at the effects over time. While we found no evidence of a positive effect across the period of time that we studied in this paper, the next step in our research is to better understand whether, compared to those who are unemployed, the mental health of those in the poorest quality jobs deteriorates over time or whether, despite the short-term adversity, poor quality jobs do actually provide a springboard to better outcomes for individuals.

The context is also important. In Australia, the availability of a universal social safety net is likely to moderate the most adverse consequences of unemployment. While there is criticism of the adequacy of income support payments, it may be that access to unemployment benefits and health care may help people to avoid the worst consequences of unemployment, such as extreme poverty.”

Clearly, long-term unemployed Americans are at greater risk for ending up in financial hell because we lack similar safeguards.

Have you done a job you hated for a paycheck, or for the learning experience? I have. I spent endless years, it seemed, writing for trade publications about everything from underwear to restaurant equipment. And I was also a greeter at CBS’ program analysis division. That job entailed me canvasing the streets of Manhattan to find tourists who’d be willing to view pilots for stupid sitcoms; and you better believe I spent many nights thinking my college education was worth crap.

I kept moving forward and eventually found work I loved, but I wonder now if I were drinking the well-being Kool-Aid back then if I ever would have been able to find career bliss, or should I say, career OK-ness.

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