The Hidden Tragedy of Work

International Workers’ Memorial Day is observed today in Australia and more than 100 countries around the world, following Canada’s first remembrance of persons killed from work-related causes in 1991.

Sadly, two members of Victoria’s magistracy and countless others who have ended their lives, due at least in part to their work, will not be counted in WorkSafe Victoria’s official statistics for work-related deaths.

Because work-related suicide is not counted and rarely investigated by the regulator, policy and practice responses tend to focus on support and welfare measures for individuals to cope better with their work.

But I submit the reality of work factors in suicide is not fully understood by a traditional occupational health and safety focus on work systems. There is a cultural problem in western economies with our beliefs about work.

Tom* had a young family with his wife of 16 years. He was the ‘go-to’ man where he worked as a welder; a man to whom others turned for help with their jobs. He got the job done and had a strong work ethic.

Tom was putting steel in place at work when a beam fell on him and he was hurt. He was on WorkCover benefits for three months before commencing a WorkCover return-to-work program. But his rehabilitation focused on restoring Tom’s physical capacity to work, while doing little, if anything, to address the psychological and spiritual harm he suffered from his work injury.

Tom was happy to go back to work, but he started to see danger everywhere, and to question his ability to keep himself safe at work. Then he began questioning himself as a man, as a father and as a husband. His wife said: “It just took him over.” Finally, his mental health deteriorated to the point that a year after his accident, he took his own life at his workplace.

Western economies rest on the view that a person’s worth is judged by their ability to work hard. Former prime ministers give voice to this cultural belief that hard work is the basis of human worth and identity.

“If you work hard and if you’re honest in your dealings with people, you will get your rewards,” John Howard said.

On another occasion he said “decency and hard work define a person’s worth.’

Kevin Rudd stated that if “you do your job to the best of your ability … and if you work hard at it and do it well then the future tends to look after itself”. Julia Gillard said of her father that it was he who taught her “that nothing comes without hard work”.

But when hard work can no longer provide the personal rewards promised by such beliefs, the mental health and identity of workers like Tom crumbles into a pain-filled darkness from which there seems to be no escape.

I would argue that our culture’s belief in the saving virtue of hard work is idolatrous. When the worth of human life is narrowed to what is achieved in the public realm of work, and the pain and grief of work-related harm is excluded as ‘mere’ emotion, we are living in a culture that is out of kilter with God’s intention for humans to enjoy life in its wholeness.

WorkSafe needs to start a public counting of work-related suicides, and establishing protocols with Victoria Police to ensure they are notified and investigated by WorkSafe inspectors. Investigations need to break through the ideological divide between public and private experiences of work harm by including the evidence of spouses on their loved-one’s death.

The Uniting Church through its Synod, community services and educational institutions can begin piloting programs of peer support across their workplaces to ensure that work-related harm is discussed and brought to public awareness in the workplaces where and when it occurs.

* Tom is a pseudonym for a worker whose spouse I interviewed for research on 10 widows’ experience of the Victorian workers compensation scheme. See ‘Our system isn’t geared for death”: theological and sociological reflections on the narratives of ten women widowed by their husband’s work-related death and their experience on workers’ compensation – Creative Ministries Network, 2015


John Bottomley is a Uniting Church minister, a consultant with Transforming Work, a member of RASP, the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy, and author of Hard Work Never Killed Anybody: how the idolisation of work sustains this deadly lie (Morning Star Publishing, 2015).