Your mental health is more than your productivity

The conversation around mental health needs to loosen its emphasis on productivity.

For me, that meant recognizing my depression wasn’t self-indulgent. I used to assume that by admitting I was depressed, I would be either a disservice to someone else’s “real” depression or I’d be faking it to avoid work.  

The latter was often reinforced with a steady stream of pictures on my newsfeed that encouraged me to be “happier,” “healthier” and troublingly, “more productive.” Slowly, I began to think that productivity was tied to my well-being. That is, performing well was the only way to improve my mental health.

So much of the conversation around mental health puts the measurable, external outcomes of success on a pedestal. Personal factors of wellbeing, like sleep quality, coping with stress and the quality of our relationships stop being the end goal of our mental health efforts. Whether it’s turning in good work or maintaining a demanding schedule, priorities are often shifted away from taking care of yourself.   

Mental health does have a substantial economic impact. According to a 2016 report from The Conference Board of Canada, the Canadian economy loses roughly $50 billion annually because of workers’ depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, by connecting mental health to productivity and money, we are actually having an unproductive discussion about how we talk about wellness.

As a result, this report overstates mental health as an economic problem, impeding a well-functioning market with disability leave, missed days and snail-paced productivity. 

The result is the implication that someone suffering from mental illness is avoiding their responsibility to contribute to society in an economic and measurable way. Consequently, workers are encouraged to be just well enough so that it doesn’t affect their jobs.

Likewise, individuals appearing productive, happy and altogether fine in the eyes of colleagues may not have their diagnosis taken seriously because they meet workplace expectations. Alternatively, the individual themself may think their distress counts less because it’s personal. 

This leaves people suffering from high-functioning depression in a peculiar situation at their workplace. Their impairments are less visible, but still present. 

Dialogue about wellbeing and mental illness shouldn’t be tied to the quality of a day’s work.  The framing of mental health as an economic issue reduces genuine quality of life into something transactional, cheapening the difficulties of mental illness.  

Instead, we need a deeper understanding that prioritizes the person over their output. The broader conversation must do a better job of recognizing this distress where it counts — outside of the workplace. 

Nick is The Journal’s Arts Editor. He’s a fourth-year Global Development Major.

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