On The Workplace Therapy Culture


Many businesses, organisations and institutions pay tens of thousands of pounds to third party businesses to provide therapeutic, EAP (Employee Assistance Program), “life support” schemes for their staff. LifeWorks is just such a service.

Provided by HR consultants Ceridian, the service is sold to management as one-stop-shop for decreasing employee absence, reducing costs due to stress, training managers in duties such as “workforce adjustment” (that’s sacking people to you and me) and increasing productivity. They are sold to staff as an indication of the company’s interest in their welfare – “our staff are our greatest asset”. The websites ask staff questions like:

What is your parenting style? Are you feeling caregiver stress? Do you have debt problems? How resilient are you?

They offer courses and written material on subjects like:

Navigating Workplace Change, Personal Budgeting, Ten Strategies for Overcoming Overload, Relax the Body, Calm the Mind. Workforce Adjustment (for managers).

Now these services may even be of genuine value to some employees but it does seem ironic to me that these services are provided by institutions to help workers cope with the stress and excessive workload caused by the policies of the very same organisation. i.e. we’re going to make life so stressful for you it’s going to make you ill – but we will provide you with therapy to get you through it. Perhaps another way to deal with this work-place stress would be to…… adopt different policies!? Duuuurrrr!

But despite the implicit hypocrisy of these services and their infantilising effect on us as individuals, I am actually more interested in the political implications of this therapy culture we seem to have embraced along side the commodification and commercialisation of all our relationships.

The basic issue for me is that services like LifeWorks try to suggest that if there are problems at work it is the worker’s problem – not the organisations. If there is stress it is the personal psychological problem of the staff member – rather than the result of unreasonable workload or systemic failures.

If there are issues of verbal abuse or bullying these are not issues of the abuse of power, they are personal problems the victim has to deal with by adopting psychological survival strategies – rather than the organisation facilitating the confrontation of the abuser and demanding an end to the abuse.

If workers have personal debt problems this reflects a personal failure to manage money – rather than a reflection of their low pay and our consumerist culture in which buying things is presented to us as the ultimate expression of our freedom and self-worth.

If a worker is angry it is because they have a personal character defect – not because they lack financial security, any sense of community, face relentless technical and organisational change, are being exploited and overworked and are facing never-ending domestic demands on their time and bank balance.

This is not to deny that technical and organisational changes are often necessary (if not inevitable) and difficult both to experience and manage, or that some individuals do indeed suffer from dysfunctional anger, addiction, poor financial management and an inability to deal with any kind of change.

Surely, it is obvious that human beings feel all sorts of emotions all of the time. As an inevitable by-product of social living we enjoy friendship, fraternity, love, happiness, excitement and the thrill and joy of success. But we also suffer insecurity, betrayal, anger, boredom, domination, failure and disappointment. But several questions then arise, (i) when, and to what extent are these negative emotions dysfunctional? (ii) who says so? (iii) who or what, is responsible for generating these painful emotions?

The presumption that unhappiness demonstrates mental instability and personal emotional fragility, rather than unacceptable working conditions, both Infantilises workers and denies the lived reality of economic exploitation and political oppression.

I would argue that the old hippy maxim of “before you can change the world, you must change yourself”, has combined with neo-liberal economic individualism to undermine the very idea of individuals uniting via common action to bring about systematic social and political change.

This sort of combination of radical and conservative notions of individualism tries to suggest that everything wrong with the Western world is at the level of individual psychological dysfunction – industrial, social or economic problems simply don’t exist. That there are only personal psychological problems that we try to medicalise through the use of pseudo spiritual self-help programs, therapeutic treatments and increasingly, drugs.

What no one seems to want to consider is that solipsistic, egoistic, self-absorption and mental illness might be the inevitable result of neo-liberal, economic individualism – if there is no such thing as society, if every one else is a competing threat to my security, if every problem is a personal one, if-it-is-to-be-it-is-up-to-me, then I bloody well better try and make sure I’m up to it. What’s the point in looking to others for help or cooperating with my competitors? How can I believe that ‘the whole is greater than the part’ if there is no whole of which I am a part? No, in such a world it is perfectly rational to be self-obsessed.

Is it not worth at least considering that the almost crisis levels of depression, divorce, loneliness, anger, addiction and violence that we see in the West are a result of the system and values we are trying to live by? That maybe these feelings of anger, depression and loneliness are the inevitable result of the alienating effects of corporate, consumerist, capitalism?

There is masses of research to show that human beings are happiest and get the greatest sense of living meaningful lives when they do things with and for other people (see my post the Social Gene 2). Perhaps our depression and unhappiness is a result of the rampant materialist values constantly shoved down our throats, our profound lack of personal autonomy and a system that forces us into the relentless pursuit of self-interest. But of course if we’re all basically mad it’s all our own fault anyway and nothing to do with the society we live in.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

corporate democracy economics freedom left-wing libertarian managerialism moral philosophy politics radical socialist society

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