In Praise of Work, a Basic Human Need

31st March 2021

Sigmund Freud suggested that the two cornerstones of our humanness are to love and to work.

That about sums up the source of human health and resilience. Babies deprived of maternal love fail to thrive physically and can actually die. Older children and adults may live but die internally and interpersonally without love as essential support for humanness.

It is intriguing to think of work as a source of mental health on a par with love. We treat work as an economic variable, but underestimate its contribution to mental health and thriving, despite the corrosive effect of long-term unemployment being well documented.

Apart from putting food on the table, work is associated with health (one study found unemployed people died a year sooner than the employed) and dignity. Maybe alongside Gross Domestic Product, we should measure General Dignity Provision. Too many people are suffering from hunger, but I suspect even more are perishing from the daily assaults on their dignity from being unable to support themselves and make a contribution to society. A drop of 7% in the country’s GDP is worrying in an abstract kind of way, but millions of people like those we meet every day falling into de-humanising despair is terrifying.

With dignity goes social cohesion. Findings on unemployment and crime are mixed, but crime probably increases with unemployment among those who are most marginal in society. We know that the longer one is unemployed, the more difficult it is to return to the workforce. Large-scale unemployment threatens the social health of the nation.

The long-term social impact of joblessness means that just as Melinda Gates said last year that no one is safe from COVID-19 until everyone is safe, so none of us is immune from the effects of the joblessness pandemic until work is available to all.

The biggest source of employment across Africa is small and microbusinesses, but one of the pernicious effects of the pandemic is that these have been the most vulnerable. What has been the impact of Covid-19 on small businesses? In May last year, 87% of firms across Africa we were working with, in AMI said they feared for their survival.

In fact, the failure rate may have been lower than feared. Amongst firms we work with, over 80% may have survived till now. Of course, we would expect more of our participants to survive than others, as they have had the benefit of training specifically aimed at surviving and thriving through the pandemic. And the statistics can be misleading – some have downscaled, surviving in name only with just the founder as sole “employee”, living on savings and waiting for customers to return. So my sense is that across the continent there are many thousands of these businesses shrunk to the very edge of survival. Can they make it?

If we are nearing the end of the pandemic, these shrunken businesses can revive like bulbs in spring, and rehire their previous employees. We have seen that begin to happen. But if the pandemic remains a threat for the rest of the year and into next year, as is expected in many African countries, many of these bulbs will die in the ground and those jobs will be lost forever.

Surely keeping small companies open until conditions improve must be an even better strategy for job creation than trying to encourage people to begin new businesses. They have relationships and knowledge and proved their viability before the pandemic struck. They cannot be blamed for this external threat.

Clearly, there is a role for government and large agencies in this, but let’s all continue as we began last year with supporting our local small businesses. This week’s challenge: Can I save someone’s job?

Jonathan Cook is a counselling psychologist and chairman of the African Management Institute. He is also the host of AMI’s weekly Rise reflection series focused on supporting you in your business and your personal wellness.

This article was originally published on BusinessLive on 15 March 2021 and is republished with permission.

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