Framing unemployment as something owing to the psychology of an individual rather than attending to its political, social and economic causes is an unsettling practice at any time, but within the context of the punishing austerity measures this country has been subjected to in recent years it borders on inhumane. And yet this is precisely what is happening within the government’s welfare reforms.
Public money is being directed towards compelling unemployed people to engage in dubious mental health programmes. The coercion is ensured by threatening to sanction the benefits of claimants should they refuse or fail to meet the demands of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Under the government's workfare policies, individuals undertake work in return for their benefit payments or they risk losing them.
Part of this coercion involves what Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn (in research published in the journal Medical Humanities) have described as psychocompulsion - policy interventions targeting disadvantaged and excluded populations. Dr Simon Duffy, a colleague of Friedli's and Director of The Centre for Welfare Reform has said that the "government is using the language of psychology in order to justify its policies of sanctions, workfare and reduced rights for workers. What can often sound plausible at first turns out to be the worst kind of manipulation further degrading the quality of life for all".
This worsening situation is devastating to increasing numbers of people. In their film 'And This Time It's Personal: Psychocompulsion And Workfare', Friedli and Stearn address the ways in which people are being bullied by a punitive benefits system that places the responsibility for a person's circumstances on the individual while diverting attention away from the socio-economic and political factors that bear the truer weight of responsibility.
This move on the part of the DWP has involved a shift away from what a person needs to do to find work towards what a person needs to be. The conducting of tests scrutinising the claimant's basic attitudes and beliefs seek to ascertain whether the person fits within a narrow set of characteristics chosen by the state. Much of this seems to be asking if the person is sufficiently optimistic, motivated, positive or aspirational. Via the job centre and the sub-contractors of the welfare-to-work industry, such surveying of the psychology of claimants somehow hopes to reveal who can be classed as an employable person.
This labouring on the self to demonstrate employability is central to the experience of increasing numbers of benefit claimants and contributes to the sinister narrative that unemployment is evidence of both personal failure and psychological deficit. Last year, the government had even stated its intention to co-locate therapists in job centres, with sessions to be made compulsory. Quite how this would ever be therapy was a real concern given that the underpinning rationale in workfare policy has little to do with improving health. With a person’s employment considered as the clinical outcome rather than their health, psychology and therapy within the DWP could only serve ideological purposes.
This misuse of psychology in the delivery of workfare functions to absolve the government’s responsibility for the suffocating effects of social and economic inequalities their policies have helped create. The construction of a psychological ideal that links unemployment to psychological deficit permits the extension of state-contracted surveillance and judgement of the psychological characteristics of the individual. These measures are both coercive and punitive.
It is extraordinarily unfair to be delivered into distress by a neoliberal, austerity economics that looks after the few at the expense of the many only to have the unemployment it creates compounded by its reframing as due to a psychological deficiency in the person. This perceived 'lack' residing in the mind of the person and their employment status is apparently illuminated by searching doses of positive psychology and psychometric testing.
Applying psychology in this way is a political choice. Certainly, it is not a matter of scientific evidence. It is self-serving ideology. It downplays the socio-political forces that hurt our mental health and result in unemployment. It exacerbates and legitimises a host of harmful factors that any decent society would prefer to moderate - deprivation, oppression, discrimination, exclusion, marginalisation, injustice and inequality among them.
Of the long-term consequences of all this, one can view a loss of human potential to the detriment of all of us. We are losing people who with the right support could work productively, continue to educate themselves, support their relationship networks and contribute to society in all sorts of ways.
Using dubious, blinkered programmes that demonise and damage groups already disadvantaged and excluded by the actions of the ruling political class leaves us all worse off and moves us towards a society that is more dysfunctional, suffering in greater inequalities and ridden with all manner of anxieties. The workfare programme and the kind of psychology that supports it is not only culpable in failing to work against these things, it is guilty of advancing them.
Simon Rutter is a psychotherapist and writer. His writing is often engaged by the effects of the social world on the individual's welfare, being particularly stirred by the ways in which the 'psy-sciences' (psychology, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and psychiatry) can impact upon people's lives in oppressive ways. You can read more from Simon in his blog here