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3 Ways We Must Rethink Mental Health in the Workplace

by Luke Dukinfield

Tuesday was World Mental Health Day, and this year’s theme was ‘mental health in the workplace’.  But while we’ve seen much discussion of ‘talking about it’ and ‘breaking the taboo’, questions around mental health and work are rarely interrogated further.

Crucially, we must understand work as a site of antagonism and division in order to understand why the structures of work drastically harm our well-being, and to construct progressive demands around mental health and work. A lack of this kind of conceptual framework inevitably produces both toothless and even disciplinary solutions to improving mental health in the workplace, while interrogating the relationship between mental health and work serves to expose the fundamental logics of coercive productivity that underpin much of both mental health stigma and capitalism’s everyday degradations, indignities and brutalities.

1. Popular understandings of mental health and work are inadequate and damaging.

At best, the question of mental health and work is often diluted down to bargaining over the fact of excessive or insufficient work engendering ill mental health. At worst, poor mental health is deemed a moral failing, a lack of individual mettle in coping with the ‘rugged dynamism’ of the modern workplace, and a shameful disruption to productivity in the context of market logics which mechanize human lives as instruments to use and discard upon ‘malfunction’. This is, of course, if the connection between mental illness and the workplace is acknowledged at all – a fact elided in both conservative discourses that conceptualize ill mental health as a failure of character or will, as an excuse for selfish torpor, or as a personal hurdle over which one has sole responsibility; and also in medical narratives that model mental illness as a largely random biochemical imbalance abstracted from assumed-as-neutral social conditions.

Work is often thought of as a redress to poor mental health – but this is largely because unemployment is deemed a state of social disgrace, enforced by an abject political arrangement of benefit sanctions, a punitive and cruel welfare regime, and the pressures and adversities of looming poverty.  It’s not the absence of work in and of itself that harms our mental health, but rather that wage labour is a form of economic duress necessarily undertaken to survive, and that through viciously imposed political choices the alternatives have been rendered so desperately callous.  We must not only interrogate the mental health implications of a society formed around this kind of dispossession, a desperation-as-incentive set of social relations, but also understand that it’s the very structure of work itself that systematically damages our mental health.

2. Work under capitalism is inherently harmful to our mental health.

Under capitalism, work occupies the majority of our lives – this is especially the case in the post-Fordist landscape of gig economies, unpaid internships and trade union enfeeblement. This landscape is marked by a digital warping of the traditional 9-5 work boundaries, an institutionalized precarity in which we live hand-to-mouth and are interminably at the mercy of bosses’ whims, and regimes of performance management that demand and exalt unpaid (‘going above and beyond’) labour, emotional subservience, and relentless bureaucratic evaluation. There is a widespread, visceral sense of aversion to work, a discontentment with the constricting hold it has over our lives, its emotional enervations, and its routines of domination, dehumanization and drudgery – and yet simultaneously an open acceptance that this is simply how work is ‘naturally’ organized. Indeed, it’s telling that such resignations are actually emblematic of a depressive state of being: that one’s suffering is immutable, inexorable, and ultimately all-consuming.

The workplace is experienced as a site of stress, insecurity and fear. We are paid a pittance for often arduous and monotonous labour with little (if any) positive social purpose. The majority of the value we create is stolen to accumulate profit for bosses, whilst we struggle to make ends meet. We have no say in or control over the conditions or content of our work: wage labour is a contract in which we rent ourselves out to our bosses in exchange for a wage and thus must submit to their dictates. The sense that we have lost something when we work is a materially concrete reality of alienation, especially as our personalities become increasingly subsumed into the performance of hollow ‘company values’. Our well-being is completely subordinated to the vicissitudes of the profit motive, with its relentless drive to extract ever more time, energy and emotion from us in return for less and less remuneration. We are ever more over-burdened and atomized as employment protections are dismantled, and we are pitted against one another, monitored and measured incessantly. Our livelihoods are always at risk if we are deemed to lack ‘enthusiasm’, ‘flexibility’ or ‘efficiency’. Attempts to collectively improve conditions are repressed and punished to viciously safeguard bosses’ tyrannical hold on power.

Feeling trapped, undervalued, isolated, unfulfilled, fatigued, inadequate, hopeless, powerless, disposable – a familiar constellation of symptoms accompanying ill mental health – are thus preconditions and functions of work discipline. This is epitomized in the fact that many refrain from disclosing mental health problems at work for fear of being made redundant. A structural logic in which human need is subordinated to a regime of exhaustive and extractive productivity not only exacerbates mental illness, but also readily dispossesses us of access to the workplace when we do fall ill.

This sense of fear is especially present for marginalized groups, with employers wielding the threat of deportation over migrants organizing for better conditions, sexual harassment and misogyny from bosses and customers rampant, and LGBTQI+ communities forced to repress ourselves and perform elaborate ruses so as to not risk discrimination and abuse. Oppression and dehumanization are thus reproduced acutely in the workplace, rendering us even more vulnerable to mental illness.

3. We must look beyond the ‘business case for good mental health’ towards new horizons.

As with all days designated to ‘raise awareness’ about issues suffered by marginalized groups, we must be wary of their tokenism, the limits of an awareness-raising which glosses over or substitutes for the need for fundamental material change, and their tendency towards co-optation and recuperation. If the need to improve mental health is assimilated into PR campaigns and marketing strategies designed to obscure brutal arrangements of power in the workplace, relegated to branding gestures, perfunctory ‘adjustments’ and mindfulness courses on bosses’ terms, mental health as a site of contestation is ceded, and political solutions will be oriented towards producing functional, placated and efficient workers content with conditions of generalized domination. Mental health as a manifestation of material tensions can thus be packaged, branded and sold back to us, internalized as a problem ultimately residing with the individual, in order to preserve the very social order that exacerbates and engenders mental illness in the first place.

We must argue not only for investment in support and health infrastructure but also for collective ownership over workplaces, democratic control over productive and reproductive apparatuses, and equitable implementation of technologies to drastically ease workloads and curtail the length of the working week. We must understand ill mental health as an issue of disempowerment, situated in a context of decimated collectivity. We must recognize it as a symptom of a society in which our flourishing is fundamentally constricted by the compulsory productivity and misery of capitalism.

Published 14th October 2017

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