Surviving Work in 2017
I started this new year in the same grinding state I ended the last. Existential and sweating. I lost a lot last year, including my confidence that the universe is indeed benevolent. Felt defeated, went a bit feral, didn’t wash much and built a shrine to ward off the evils. Depleted by a diet of politics and employment relations I went a bit brown-rice and over to the hippy side to prepare for the digging-deep year ahead.
One of the things I read (I say read, I had to buy an audio tape because my eyes were bleeding from overwork. Not even joking) is The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible by Charles Eisenstein (look give it a chance, man). This book, a lullaby for the apocalypse ahead, is based on the idea that we are living in a time that is in-between stories. That the old tales of working hard and doing good have died, no longer based on actual human experience. The new stories of how we live and work together are not clear yet. We are stuck, in between the stories of our own lives.
I have felt this existential discomfort in my gut for the last twelve months as the realisation dawned about what was happening at work. I am no longer convinced that I can find something clever or strategic to say about work, bit challenging for someone in the business of surviving it. Like many people, just because I’m working does’t mean I’m any good at it.
This depressing realisation is, according to Freud, a rather wonderful thing because it allows us to grow up, in the full knowledge that without contact with other people we’re just not very good at anything. If our reasons for getting up in the morning are as Freud believed, to love and to work, the idea that we could do this without other people starts to look plain daft.
So people, its time to co-create some new stories.
Last year a group of us decided to try to collectively think about how to survive work in the current context by writing a series of blogs – Surviving Work in the UK – for the LSE’s Business Review. From welfare reform to business school education, we’ve been putting our heads together to find ways out of the existential woods.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be serialising the blogs in two’s and three’s to stimulate a conversation of sorts. In the Spring we’ll produce an eBook and then hold a Survival Surgery in London where we will put our minds together to answer some of your dilemmas at work. Over the coming months we’re asking people to anonymously send in the dilemmas they are facing so that we can try to solve them. Please send us your dilemmas to email@example.com (anonymity guaranteed) so we can start to dig deep.
What follows is the introductory blog of the series written by me and published by the LSE Business Review here. .
Surviving Work in the UK: An introduction
There is no question that workplaces have taken a perverse turn, and I mean that in its brutal Freudian sense. We live in a society where receiving chemotherapy means you are fit for work and ‘toxic leadership’ has become a mainstream topic on business school curricula. A lot of working life is just unfair.
Not wishing to blind you with Human Resource Management theory, but as precarious work grows, most of us manage our working lives by keeping our mouths shut and withdrawing from each. A new workplace sport grows, how to avoid human contact with co-workers.
The Precarity Paradox
Precarious work is the new black in academic and policy circles with some good data coming out about low wages, temporary agency work and the impact on the regulation of work in the UK.
What is much less talked about is the reality of these precarious workers themselves and the impact on their mental health – depression, anxiety disorders and suicides – and with this omission a substantial de-humanization of the issues.
Many working people are disorientated by a sense of “liquid fear” at work. This is a state of mind where distinctions between serious and less serious workplace problems can’t be made. The smallest mistake becomes the end of your career and you wake up bolt upright sweating at 3am wondering how you’re going to handle the next “informal” chat with your line manager. This fear goes right up the management chain, with public and private sector leadership often reduced to talking about the very evident financial crisis only from the safety of retirement.
In the public sector, impossible targets are managed through command-and-control management and there is a stomach-churning rise in racism, whistleblowing and victimisation. According to the people working in the NHS, our health system runs on a ‘pervasive culture of fear’. Yes, our national system for promoting health is itself profoundly sick.
Talking about precarious work has an inherent paradox when precarious workers are often just too scared to engage in the debates about work. It is not just the migrant workers working as nurses or the young people under 25 that flood private employment agencies that feel insecure, it affects everyone working in this system. Precarity is inclusive, with senior managers equally unwilling to join the ranks of the self-employed by raising concerns about corporate governance or tax evasion.
Anxiety can do bad stuff to people, encouraging us to retreat into a psychic bunker with members of our occupational tribe (Armstrong D & Rustin M (2015) Social Defences Against Anxiety: Explorations in a paradigm. London: Karnac). In a context of workplace insecurity, one of the great seductions is to believe that we are united in the team. Our actual experience can be that when the balance tips in favour of fear our relationships easily break down. This is why any workplace under stress can turn from being a group of benign co-workers to a gangland that splits the them’s and us’s, the winners from the losers and people end up eating their lunch in the loos.
This fear and loathing of working life encourages us to put our faith in the magic solutions of strategic reviews and marital mergers. An HRM lullaby to rock us to sleep, despite the growing evidence that as the economic crisis deepens so does conflict at work.
Comforting as it is to look upon our managerial leaders as a separate form of human life the reality is that most of them are ordinary people who started out wanting to do something worthwhile. The problem is that something happens in the workplace playground to downgrade our humanity. Two occupational hazards stick out.
Firstly the people that go into leadership roles are highly motivated to do so. One of the problems with this genuine desire to do something productive is that this belief can, with surprising speed and ease, turn into a sadistic guilt pumping sense that it is your duty to save the organisation. Add to this a certain degree of the old superhero syndrome where despite the managerial casualties littering the corridors somehow you’ve got what it takes to turn the organisational tide. Managers can become unrealistic at best, careless, demoralised and burnt out at worst.
A second occupational hazard is that to protect our hearts and minds against the disturbing organisational complexities that exist in real workplaces, we become managerially defended. This is a position where our beliefs become facts, certainty replaces anxiety and alls well with the managerial world. A fundamentalism which measures workplace realities through metrics, absence management and where the computer always says no.
In his work Sex, Death and the Superego (worth carrying around with you in order to secure a seat on public transport) and Between Mind and Brain, the psychoanalyst Ron Britton explores the leadership mind. He argues that a fundamentalist position where the workplace can be divided into winners and losers, productivity and targets, is a reaction to the profound human experience of needing to manage our anxieties in groups. In those times at work when we can’t maintain a very human position of ‘moderate scepticism’ – we fall into a world of absolute certainty or absolute doubt. If our anxiety dominates, our need for certainty goes up hence the growth of increasingly command and control management culture in our workplaces. Britton writes that it’s not what we believe but how we believe that determines whether we can work together, and find a way out of the paradoxes inherent in the experience of precarity.
A Relational Model of Surviving Work
Unfortunately one of the main alternatives to workplace relations is a marketing car crash. Psychoanalytic ideas offer us a humanistic and relational model of how to make friends and influence people based on a deeply unpalatable menu of dependency, death and, in the most sobering of Freud’s ideas, that we should aim to just be ordinarily unhappy at work.
Psychoanalytic ideas question a model of measuring work using the box-ticking of the metric age, promoting more profound processes about how to get on with people we don’t like and how to grow up. Psychoanalysis offers ways for us to carry out the central task we all have to do when we go to work, to learn to tolerate other people.
As a result it is also a model that promotes talking – not the positivity pumping stuff of listening exercises- rather the establishment of a containing space, what is sometimes called a transitional space using the work of Donald Winnicott (Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, 1951) – where you can say what’s on your mind and I am open to being influenced by what you have to say. A developmental rather than a managerial process which accepts that we are all amateurs when it comes to getting on with people at work.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, our only way out of the precarity paradox is to build our relationships with each other. It offers us a relational model of solidarity at work, an ideal that exists precisely because we are all capable of acting defensively and against our own human interests. Working life involves us making the best out of a bad lot – building relationships with the people we actually work with, in all their imperfect, frustrating and diverse glory. This involves accepting that surviving work is not so much about brilliant ideas or leadership qualities, rather to learn how to play nicely with the other children in the workplace playground.
In a context of workplace violence, if there is a fight to be had it is a psychological one. To continue to take the risk of making contact with other people who are not the same as us, who are not perfect and who can really get on your nerves.
To confidentially send us your dilemmas at work please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We guarantee that these dilemmas, your identity and email address will remain fully confidential. If we decide to use your dilemma to open up a discussion about surviving work you will be contacted directly and asked for your permission for distribution of an anonymised version of your submission.
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