Blogging has become the only show in town if you want to say something about the reality of work. In an age of organisational failure, our workplaces have battened down the hatches so tightly most of us struggle to squeak up about what’s really happening to work. 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 business school luminaries still use the word ‘leadership’ with a straight face.
In a recessionary context, it’s a bit hard to disagree with the idea that the root of the mental health crisis we are gearing up for is located in the way our societies are run, both concretely in terms of the ideals and power structures in place, and also unconsciously. The things we deny and project onto the others, like the existence of vulnerability or even mental illness.
This is profoundly important for those of us working in the field of employment relations. Precarious work is the new black in academic and policy circles with some cracking data coming out about low wages, zero hour contracts, temporary agency work and the impact on the regulation of work. What is much less talked about is the reality of these precarious workers themselves and by that I mean the unsanitised stuff of mental health – depression, anxiety disorders, bullying and suicides, take your pick. This means the mental health crisis that is taking place in the UK’s workplaces is being overlooked in current employment relations debates and with it a substantial dehumanization of the issues.
As someone who works in mental health at work I am often stunned at how deep this denial goes, with the reality of mental illness stripped from debates about zero hour contracts, often underpinned by a fantasy that mental illness can be legislated out of the workplace. If you are not on a zero hour contract just stop for a minute and imagine how this would affect your state of mind. Come on, have a go. Would you find reasons to be cheerful if you stopped being able to buy this year’s winter shoes or have enough money to ask someone out on a date?
Online technologies are massively important to help us understand this link between work and the mind precisely because it is so difficult to talk about disturbance in a fragile workplace. Communicating online is one of the few ways of charting the experience of working people as anyone researching the situation of precarious workers will know. If you’re an agency worker or an apprentice, earning less than minimum wage you don’t raise your mental health problems with occupational health or well-meaning researchers and the internet often becomes the only place where this disclosure can safely take place.
This is not an academic point – 5 million people in the UK earn less than the minimum wage, 220,000 of them work as carers. From a psychoanalytic perspective this isn’t even shocking news, that we would stubbornly deny the consequences of the UK’s policy on social care because it reveals the hatred we have for emotions and emotional work.
As a result the field of employment relations needs to take new technologies very seriously if we want to work with an accurate picture of what is happening with work. This is linked to change in where we look for expertise, a radicalism which mental health networks have can be proud of, putting them way ahead of most left wing and academic institutions. The technology and its potential anonymity offer us a way of getting to these real experts. The deliciousness of tapping into other people’s thoughts and conversations, for example, is that we are learning from the real experts about life.
One of the most painful organisational debates I have ever been part of was a recent international psychoanalytic association’s discussion about their webpage. For people trained to keep their minds in the presence of violence and human crisis, we didn’t do very well on the topic of twitter. This is a misunderstanding of the therapeutic potential of the new technology. This is not to deny the dangers of anonymity, nor the hatreds that get unleashed behind #easygoingguy taglines. Nor do I think that there is ever a substitute for being in a therapeutic space with a clinically trained human being. But at its best, www offers an anonymous space where human beings can say what’s on their mind and be heard, often without judgement and with huge compassion. People respond immediately and positively to other people’s experiences, in a way that even the best designed workplace wellbeing programme does not stand a chance of replicating. Human beings respond to other human beings even if it is via social media.I might be wrong about this but I also think Freud would have thrived in 140 characters, getting to the brutal psychic point in an age of verbalism. I think he would have found the twittersphere refreshing and caused him to chuckle regularly.
The good news is that we’re not currently wasting a good mental health crisis. Having spent the last year talking to anyone that stands still long enough about surviving work, my experience is that there has been a quiet psychic revolution going on in the UK. The most unlikely people are ready to talk online about the realities of depression, anxiety and despair, ideas that in those warm bath days of economic wealth brought us out in a rash.
This year we set up the Surviving Work Library, a free and anonymous library of podcasts and tips from users. Our aim is to use the profound-lite mix of social media and blogging to think about mental health and psychoanalytic ideas using ordinary language. Our authors are anonymous and ordinary (that’s a Freudian compliment) talking about how they survive work. Over time we hope to build up a large catalog of user driven content to raise awareness and knowledge about mental health and work. We also hope that people will enjoy it.
Please tell people about the Surviving Work Library. Send the link to your friends, tell the people you work with about it, put it on your websites and tweet about it. Send us your stories and top tips for surviving work. You can download our quick Surviving Work Guide, mercifully short because it’s designed to be used on your phone. If you wanted us to come over for tea and a chat and do some recordings with you or the people that you work with then please just contact us on [email protected] .