Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

In this global age when often, our worth seems to be based on economic performance and productivity, work is dominating our lives more than ever. It seems that many people feel the need to overlook their wellbeing, in favour of work and financial stability. This is a massively short-sighted approach, that risks backfiring in the long term. This pandemic has revealed the massive risks that come with these attitudes to work. 

In many countries working overtime is an unavoidable practice. Often there is no defined agreement between employer and employee and instead it is an implicit obligation or the initiative of “virtuous” workers.

However, several studies show how working overtime has detrimental consequences on one’s health, both physical and psychological. High blood pressure, for instance, that is closely connected to working overtime, has been recognized as a factor that heightens the risk of acute symptoms of COVID-19.

Moreover, work related stress, as well as any other type of stress, weakens the immune system. By doing so, it makes people more prone to fall ill.

Another harmful behaviour is the tendency of many workers to go to the office when sick. Even the symptoms of a simple cold or a mild flu means people should stay home. Despite this, many opt for spreading their germs all over the office, because they are afraid of missing an important meeting or deadline at work.

However, the problem goes beyond the individual, when societies and institutions are reluctant to put health and safety first. On the 27th of February, when the death toll in the north of Italy began to grow rapidly, the mayor of Milan, Mayor Sala launched a video with the hashtag #milanononsiferma (Milan never stops). Meanwhile, the Secretary of Italy’s Democratic Party (PD), Luca Zingaretti, was proudly attending ‘Happy hours’ to “defeat the virus”. The same happened in the province of Bergamo. Responsibility must come from institutions. But they blatantly failed to be a good example, until it was too late.

It’s high time to reflect on our attitudes to work. Putting productivity before health and safety is counterproductive; workers that are unhealthy and unsafe are less productive. This lowers overall productivity whilst risking lives and undermining overall life quality.

Cuts to welfares and public health and care around Europe have been justified by improving efficiency and productivity, but at what price? There are not enough intensive care beds in hospitals, leading to overcrowding, that threatens more lives.

As a result we have needed stricter quarantine measures and resulting in a bigger loss of productivity. The dog chases its own tail. Again, the Italian region Lombardy is an unfortunate emblematic example: its fragmented and decentralized healthcare model, has proven to be a detonator for a COVID-19 explosion.

What lesson can we learn? Health must come first. Safety and health should be the first worries of each employer: no one should skip a medical check because of an unbearable workload, no one should go to work when even lightly or mildly sick.  For the sake of each other safety and wellbeing.

Improvements should happen on a personal as well as global level. We can just hope that governments will learn this lesson and will start putting people at the centre of the system again.

Because with no health, there is nothing.