Review: The Work Cure

Jack Pickering reviews The Work Cure edited by David Frayne, which combines emotive accounts of the psychic load placed on workers by recent management techniques with speculation on potential opportunities for organising against the capitalist capture of our mental worlds. 

David Frayne (ed.), The Work Cure: critical essays on work and wellness, (Monmouth: PCCS Books, 2019). 280 pp. £19.99

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As a precarious worker within the current marketised system of higher education, I find current writing on work and the possibility of a post-work society, such as the recent collection The Work Cure: Critical Essays on Work and Wellness edited by David Frayne, particularly urgent and relevant.

The culture of celebrating productivity, overwork, and competition within universities is being increasingly challenged by higher education workers, especially through recent high-profile UCU strikes. This resistance has implicitly challenged institutionalised well-being (management?) and mental health initiatives, which are often organised and promoted by management or Human Resources (HR) departments. Whilst some of these initiatives may be useful and can draw attention to poor working habits, a lot of them feel hollow, or hopelessly shallow against the scale of challenges posed to mental well-being at work. For example, a mindfulness course to help workers manage stress does not address the overwork and competitive environment that leads to stress levels becoming unbearable.

This way of thinking about work and health is fundamentally unable to reconcile itself with solutions which could address the root problems. The Work Cure details how this way of thinking about the connection between work and wellness extends throughout society. It documents the institutional management of workers’ psychological lives, and charts how discourses about work and productivity have been connected to notions of well-being, particularly mental well-being, over the last few decades.

In setting out his intentions for the book, Frayne is careful not to attack therapy or self-care. Instead, the purpose of the book is to critique the ideological and disciplinary application of therapy and therapeutic methods to problems workers face at work. As the opening chapters of the book go on to explore, these attempts to shape the subjectivity of the workforce come at a significant psychological and personal cost to the workers as individuals. In the first chapter, Ivor Southwood details how many institutions rely on the cultivation and maintenance of a low-level misery, both in order to function and to stymie efforts towards organised resistance to poor working conditions. Nic Murray focusses on how the radical potential of talking about distress has been thwarted as employers have found ways to control how mental distress is discussed in the workplace, often by ‘starting a conversation’. By moving the discussion of mental health into institutional channels, employers have been able to colonise subjects previously discussed in collective terms.

In his chapter, Jamie Woodcock uses the concept of ‘emotional labour’ to describe the dehumanising and alienating experience of having to perform the roles of disembodied corporate entities in customer service jobs such as those in call centres. Understanding the emotional labour necessary to successfully perform these roles, he notes that these jobs require human creativity but in a way which is tightly controlled in an affective Taylorism: a particular emotional display must be performed, within strict limits and with little room for self-expression. David Berrie and Emily McDonagh provide an apt response to these chapters by discussing the possibility of a care work strike, alongside the development of more collective and communal forms of social care. By using the notion of ‘holding’ from psychology to refer to both the need for emotional care and the emotional effort involved in providing care, they are able to consider environmental and interpersonal aspects of the work of managing anxiety.

In the final chapter of Part One, Steven Stanley describes the emergence of, resistance to, and subversion of mindfulness practices in the higher education system. He presents a history of mindfulness, charting the movement of particular meditation practices and styles from South East Asia to Western boardrooms and HR departments. He also considers the influence of particular individuals and psychological approaches that have informed this journey. He suggests ways that mindfulness could be used more productively to foster more radical organising and awareness in the workplace.

Psychology is a key theme of the second half of the book. Its authors provide a thorough and broad examination of the effect various schools of psychology have had on workplace well-being management, highlighting the powerful nexus of ideas and institutions involved in shifting approaches to workplace health, including Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, positive and clinical psychology, and the institutions of the welfare state under austerity.

Frayne provides a fantastic introduction to Part Two by sketching out the ideological connections between work and health that make them functionally inextricable in public and political discourse. He goes on to critically review many of the studies which link unemployment to ill-health, challenging methodologies as well as many of the framings which lead to the formation of these studies. Most importantly, he questions explicitly the extent to which work is good for our health and well-being, and our ability to identify the damaging aspects of alienated labour. The following three chapters, authored by Jay Watts, Paul Atkinson, and Psychologists for Social Change, all build on this theme. Each of these authors’ chapters challenge related aspects of the work-health nexus, and mount a sustained and convincing critique of the alliance between CBT and IAPT.

The penultimate contribution, from Arianna Introna and Mirella Casagrande, connects the radical possibilities of disability action cleverly to the traditions of autonomous Marxist organising. They expose the complicity of the welfare state in maintaining subjects able to work to arbitrary capitalist standards. They also explore the othering of disabled bodies and bodily subjectivities that is inherent to these systems, and imagine the potential of an approach to work and health which is inclusive of these different bodies. The final chapter, from the Recovery in the Bin Collective, details an attempt to bring back into the conversation the social and political causes of distress, and considers what it means to incorporate these into a model of living with mental illness that is not instrumentally focussed on the ability to return to work.

Whilst in many cases the chapters in this book complement each other well and provide focussed attention to a number of topics, there is a lack of attention to physical health and the connection between physical and mental health, perhaps due to the book’s publication by a psychology-focused publisher. Although unforeseeable at the time of the book’s writing, the coronavirus outbreak exaggerates this omission. Many need to risk their physical health and lives simply to stay employed in a capitalist economy. Many others are having to work from home, which means negotiating a different set of challenges to mental and physical health. These new challenges show the priorities of this book in a different light, and highlight the contributions of Arianna Introna and Mirella Casagrande. Their insights into the possibility of organising around a post-work future and the connections between disability activism and autonomous Marxism are highly valuable. They pose critical questions about whose bodies we value and how healthy bodies are often defined by their capacity to work to the demands of capital, the injustice of which is even more apparent in this time of disease.

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