when being right is not enough

Surviving Work is back in London, fresh as a middle aged gazelle back from the International Study for the Psychoanalytic Society of Organisations conference. 7.30am social dreaming plus jazz karaoke, two words and one psychic nightmare later, this might in these lean and mean times look like a marketing car crash. But that just goes to show you how ruthlessly superficial the world of work has become.


ISPSO gave me four existentially challenging days to think through what Surviving Work actually means with literally some of the greatest minds of our time. David Armstrong, I rest my case.  At the front of my mind was a question that had somewhat rudely been put to me the day before getting on the bus to Oxford, whether the concept of “Surviving Work” is in fact a corporate conspiracy.


Question: Is trying to deal with mental health at work letting the gaffers off the hook for their psychotic delinquent ways? Discuss. Exclamation mark.


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’re fit for work and business school luminaries still use the word ‘leadership’ with a straight face. We live in a sadistic age where the therapists put in charge of the Psychological Wellbeing of an increasingly distressed nation work under Dickensian workhouse conditions high fiving the therapist sitting next to us in an IAPT call centre when someone doesn’t answer the phone. In this 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 not located at the level of society and our national and global institutions.


If only the buck stopped there.


The trouble with this neat political and economic analysis is that those of us living in it are human beings. Damn. It means that as a result of this societal sadism, we are likely to crack. Double damn.  I won’t be doing a DSM-5 on you and there’s no time in the blogosphere to bottom out the mind/body split, so let’s cut to the chase. You can’t split the mind from the body any more than you can split the personal from the political, or occupational issues from those ones that you get to pack away in a brief case and take home. When people live in a toxic environment they get ill.


What makes this sick situation even sicker is that those of us who audaciously stumble into precarious states of mind between the hours of 9-5 are subject to a further splitting. If any of us go mad in recessionary work time it’s encouraged by the people around us. We get to hold all the crazy shit no-one else wants to own. In polite terms we could call it psychic recycling but actually it’s a dump and run. It’s much easier to say “crazy Sisi really needs a one-to-one with occupational health” than to say “I think our CEO is a corporate psychopath and we need to carry out a collective intervention at the next shareholder meeting”.


One of the implications of this temptation to split off vulnerability into the vulnerable is that mental health becomes a social justice issue. I would argue it is the defining workplace justice issue of our age. So it was with some surprise to hear last week that Surviving Work had been blacklisted by its own trade union. I’m quoting an unnamed union functionary here, explaining why SW is so very very bad.


“This “Surviving Work” stuff has just popped up again…Let me re-state the key issue again. Work-related stress is a hazard created by employers…..[the name of my own union] does not support the idea that individual members of staff can or should be given the “resilience” to deal with poor working conditions created by the employer.”


At this point, being right actually means being wrong. Any workplace organisation – whether it’s a union or a business – that says it’s politically incorrect to help the people around us has become perverse. It’s a paranoid insistence on being certain about the rights and wrongs of a late capitalist macroeconomic system that we live in and in the process totally missing the point.  Being right is not enough to right the workplace wrongs. It means being human with other human beings, with all the uncertainty, idiosyncratic, unruly, emotional mess up and love up that this implies.


The only thing that holds us together in any ‘union’ is that we can bear the discomfort of not being right or wrong, just human. So don’t tell us what to think comrade, just listen and learn.