It turns out this is a dangerous question to ask. It touches a nerve on welfare policy and health policy (e.g. social prescribing), and in the US on Medicaid.
I can understand the critics of poor logic. There’s plenty of evidence linking unemployment, bad health and a miserable life. But it’s the poverty and social isolation that makes people sick. If you’re retired, your lack of work per se doesn’t render you miserable. Similarly, work per se doesn’t make you well. Bad work can be deadly.
Fortunately, as concern grows about mental health inside and outside the workplace, we’re all getting smarter on what makes a healthy workplace, and good work. And aside from the wealthy and retired, we need to work. So I’d argue: rather than questioning whether work is good for us, let’s get on and create more ‘good work’.
I’ll go further: Let’s not be afraid to aim for conditions of work that are economically productive too. Granted, being paid may not be any better for your health (or your soul). Granted, there are many powerful reasons we should more tangibly value unpaid and altruistic work. But by aiming for the sweet spot where good work and economic productivity meet, we’ll stand a better chance of organisations investing in good work, and getting better outcomes for us all.