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Two Days, One Night

In the film Two Days, One Night we accompany a young mother on a frantic mission to retain her job at a small solar-panel factory in Belgium. The film is a striking portrayal of insecure working conditions and its relationship to wellbeing, both key issues in this country.

Sandra is looking to resume work following time off after a nervous breakdown. As she prepares to return, her colleagues – who worked extra hours in her absence – are offered a £1,000 bonus if they agree to make her redundant. Sandra has one weekend (two days and one night) to persuade them otherwise.

The film (based on a true story) highlights a number of challenges common in today’s workplaces. The company is under pressure from low cost Chinese manufacturers and unable to pay the bonus and keep everyone in a job. Employees are desperate for a bonus to make ends meet (some work second jobs, seemingly undeclared); while Sandra is equally anxious to get back to work as she struggles with the financial demands of raising two young children.

She is also fighting for her self-esteem. At one point, having discovered her colleagues initially voted for her dismissal, she despairs: “I don’t exist, I’m nothing, nothing at all.’ Mental health and wellbeing are central to the film.

However, the significance in policymaking is less well recognised. This is the subject of a recent report from the Wellbeing APPG, which considers the importance, not just of employment for wellbeing in the UK [i], but also issues like job security, working hours and fair pay – all at the heart of Two Days, One Night.

There is a wealth of evidence to support this. For instance, controlling for other factors, both the unemployed and insecurely employed are around 70% more likely to report low levels of wellbeing [ii]; while a lack of control at work and excessive working hours are also linked with higher levels of mental ill health. [iii,iv]

This is not just bad for citizens, it is also bad economics.

Mental illness is the single largest health problem among people of working age. It accounts for almost half of all disability among people aged 16-64 and half of all sick-days, according to Richard Layard, a labour economist and co-author of a new book on the subject. [v] He estimates that mental health accounts for an overall loss of output close to 7.5% of GDP. [vi]

In the UK, flexible working practices have undoubtedly helped weather the worst of the economic downturn, with the employment rate currently close to record levels. Yet, there remain concerns about changes to the benefits system and the nature of employment on offer. The number of working days lost to stress, depression and anxiety has increased by almost a quarter since 2009; the number lost to ‘serious mental illness’ has doubled. [vii] There are also concerns – not unrelated – about the productivity of the UK’s labour market.

Health and economic development policy makers should work together to take-on these challenges. This includes making employee wellbeing a priority for labour market policy, giving greater consideration to job quality as well as quantity, the role of management and high performance working practices, as well as investing in and using skills more effectively.

[i] Employment generates earnings, brings social status, shapes social roles, fosters social participation and is a major factor in self-image and self-esteem.

[ii] DfH, Health Improvement Analytical Team (2014) Working Well

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2013, Public Mental Health Priorities: Investing in the Evidence

[v] Richard Layard (2013) Mental Health: The New Frontier for Labour Economics, CEP Discussion Paper No 1213

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2013, Public Mental Health Priorities: Investing in the Evidence

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