Unemployment 'being rebranded as a psychological disorder'

Unemployment is being rebranded as a psychological disorder, with an increasing range of interventions being introduced to promote a 'positive' psychological outlook or leave claimants of welfare to face sanctions, according to a new analysis carried out by social science researchers from Hubbub and Birkbeck, University of London published today.

The research, published in a special edition of BMJ Medical Humanities – Critical Medical Humanities, exposes the coercive and punitive nature of ‘psycho-policy’ interventions in Government workfare programmes designed to get unemployed people back into work. Ill-defined and flawed constructs such as 'lack of motivation' and 'psychological resistance to work' are being used to allocate claimants to more or less arduous workfare regimes, the paper argues.

Drawing from written accounts of the lived experience of workfare as described by those undertaking it, the authors document the impact of psychological coercion, from unsolicited emails extolling 'positive thinking' to 'change your attitude' exercises – with people  looking for work  frequently perceiving such interventions as relentless, humiliating and meaningless.

Increasingly, workfare – mandatory unpaid labour under the threat of benefit sanctions – also includes coaching, skills-building, motivational workshops and training sessions that use psychological approaches to address apparently negative perceptions and instil approved characteristics such as optimism, confidence, aspiration, motivation and flexibility.

Commenting on the study, Lynne Friedli, co-author of the paper and researcher with Hubbub – the current residents of The Hub, the Wellcome Trust’s dedicated space for interdisciplinary research – said: “Claimants’ ‘attitude to work’ is becoming a basis for deciding who is entitled to social security – it is no longer what you must do to get a job, but how you have to think and feel. This makes the Government’s proposal to locate psychologists in Job Centres particularly worrying.

“By repackaging unemployment as a psychological problem, attention is diverted from the realities of the UK job market and any subsequent insecurities and inequalities it produces.”

Robert Stearn, from the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London, added: “Methods drawn from psychology are being used to redefine the aims of workfare. Job Centres and welfare-to-work businesses demand that the only emotions claimants have are employable ones. At the same time, the expected outcome of a forced, unpaid work placement has become just ‘a positive change in attitudes to work’.

“Punitive benefit sanctions underwrite these uses of psychology. But the damage done to people is ignored, by both government-contracted positive psychology courses and the professional bodies that represent psychology.”

Critical Medical Humanities is a special edition of BMJ Medical Humanities, guest edited by William Viney, Felicity Callard and Angela Woods from Durham University.

The research originates from Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, 75% of research in the department was recognised as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’.

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