Friday, 12 June 2015

Unemployment Rebranded

Until I saw this comment yesterday, I was blissfully unaware of a rather worrying new twist in the governments plan to get people off benefit:-
Apparently the government plans to place 350 psychologists in job centres by the end of the summer to help benefit claimants beat depression and get back into the jobs market. Claimants will also be offered online cognitive behavioural therapy to boost their "employability".
It's rather ironic that psychologists are going to be used in this way because many of us have long-argued that such expertise should have been provided within probation in order to assist with difficult cases. Anyway, it seems it was in the Chancellor's last budget:- 

The Chancellor has announced additional IAPT support for people with mental health needs in his Budget statement. The £25m package includes early access to supported Online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the co-location of IAPT (Increased Access to Psychological Therapy) staff in Jobcentres. It is expected that 40,000 JSA, ESA and Fit for Work clients will benefit over the next 3 years.

DWP will purchase these services from providers and it is additional to existing IAPT provision. 2 advisors will be based within each job centre and it will be trialled in 10 job centres in 2015-16, starting in Streatham. There will also be additional training around mental health support for Jobcentre Plus staff.

But understandably the psychologists are not happy:-

Unemployment is being "rebranded" by the government as a psychological disorder, a new study claims. Those that do not exhibit a "positive" outlook must undergo "reprogramming" or face having their benefits cut, says the Wellcome Trust-backed report.

This can be "humiliating" for job seekers and does not help them find suitable work, the researchers say. But the Department for Work and Pensions said there was no evidence to back up the "highly misleading" claims. The paper, published in the Medical Humanities journal, says benefit claimants are being forced to take part in positive thinking courses in an effort to change their personalities. They are bombarded with motivational text messages - such as "success is the only option", "we're getting there" and "smile at life" - and have to take part in "pointless" team-building exercises such as building towers out of paper clips, it adds.

New benefit claimants are interviewed to find out whether they have a "psychological resistance" to work, with those deemed "less mentally fit" given more intensive coaching. And unpaid work placements are increasingly judged on psychological results, such as improved motivation and confidence, rather than whether they have led to a job. The report's co-author, social scientist Lynne Friedli, described such programmes as "Orwellian". "Claimants' 'attitude to work' is becoming a basis for deciding who is entitled to social security - it is no longer what you must do to get a job, but how you have to think and feel."

Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes


Eligibility for social security benefits in many advanced economies is dependent on unemployed and underemployed people carrying out an expanding range of job search, training and work preparation activities, as well as mandatory unpaid labour (workfare). Increasingly, these activities include interventions intended to modify attitudes, beliefs and personality, notably through the imposition of positive affect. Labour on the self in order to achieve characteristics said to increase employability is now widely promoted. This work and the discourse on it are central to the experience of many claimants and contribute to the view that unemployment is evidence of both personal failure and psychological deficit. The use of psychology in the delivery of workfare functions to erase the experience and effects of social and economic inequalities, to construct a psychological ideal that links unemployment to psychological deficit, and so to authorise the extension of state—and state-contracted—surveillance to psychological characteristics. This paper describes the coercive and punitive nature of many psycho-policy interventions and considers the implications of psycho-policy for the disadvantaged and excluded populations who are its primary targets. We draw on personal testimonies of people experiencing workfare, policy analysis and social media records of campaigns opposed to workfare in order to explore the extent of psycho-compulsion in workfare. This is an area that has received little attention in the academic literature but that raises issues of ethics and professional accountability and challenges the field of medical humanities to reflect more critically on its relationship to psychology.

Negativity enacts the dissent without which politics disappears. Negativity, in this sense, is inseparable from the struggles of subordinated persons to resist the social conditions of their devaluation (p.xii).
Three people start today on this ‘work experience’. They are to help us for up to 30 hours a week for eight weeks over the Christmas period. I am terrified by the idea that head office think they don’t need to pay their staff. I myself am on part time minimum wage and if they can have workers for free now, what is to stop them making my position redundant and using job centre people to run the store at no cost to themselves. (Shoezone employee, November 2012) 
The cajoling of individuals into a positive affect and ‘motivated’ stance with regard to their own subordination.
This paper considers the role of psychology in formulating, gaining consent for and delivering neoliberal welfare reform, and the ethical and political issues this raises. It focuses on the coercive uses of psychology in UK government workfare programmes: as an explanation for unemployment (people are unemployed because they have the wrong attitude or outlook) and as a means to achieve employability or ‘job readiness’ (possessing work-appropriate attitudes and beliefs). The discourse of psychological deficit has become an established feature of the UK policy literature on unemployment and social security and informs the growth of ‘psychological conditionality’—the requirement to demonstrate certain attitudes or attributes in order to receive benefits or other support, notably food.i In addition, positive affect is routinely imposed in workfare programmes via the content of mandatory training courses and through job centre or contractor ‘messaging’, for example, motivational tweets or daily positive emails to claimants.

The role of workfare in regulating labour through enforcing low-paid, insecure work—‘creating workers for jobs that nobody wants’—has been widely debated, frequently in connection with increased welfare conditionality. This literature notes that eligibility for various benefits is now dependent on unemployed and underemployed people carrying out an expanding range of job search, training and work preparation activities, as well as mandatory unpaid labour. Our focus on workfare schemes and interventions targeting unemployed people’s attitudes is also indebted to the body of feminist and Marxist critical work on emotional and affective labour. However, the concerns of this literature—the management and suppression of feeling in service work and the hire of subjectivity in cognitive and affective labours; the constitutive, personality-forming effects of both—differ from ours. The personality set to work is not the same as the personality seeking employment. What the Jobcentre requires is a good but not particular attitude to work in the abstract and a capacity for adaptability that has no object. As a jobseeker you are required to accept that what differentiates you, the failed and undeserving jobseeker, from other more deserving and successful jobseekers is a set of attitudes and emotional orientations. The aim is not a job, but the generic skill, attribute or disposition of employability. Focusing on this aspect of governance, there has also been extensive critical attention paid to ‘the psyche as a site of power and object of knowledge’ (p.iii), and, under the rubric of the government of the self, to the role of strengths-based discourse in the formation of systems of discipline and control and the formulation of active welfare subjectivities.

However, there has been a marked silence about the use and misuse of psychology in public policy on many fronts: especially, the role of psychological institutions and professions in workfare and in the emerging employment services industry; and the coercive and punitive nature of many psycho-policy interventions. The voices of claimants and the disadvantaged and excluded populations who are the primary targets of these enforced programmes are little heard. So, this paper is also an effort to challenge that silence: we aim to stimulate more critical reflection on the relationship of medical humanities to psychology and the wider ‘well-being’ field, and to generate greater debate about professional accountability for these developments. We draw on personal testimonies of people experiencing workfare, UK policy and document analysis, and social media records of the activity of campaigns opposed to workfare.


  1. Excellent post, M.Brown. Good to see the Dear Leader is making sure that the whole population is on-message throughout the Republic. Only through the Dear Leader's magnanimous gestures will we achieve well-being & happiness & true global austerity. The Bankers tried very hard to make everyone rich, but sadly they were thwarted by the Evil Ed just as they had completed their initial experiments upon themselves. At least they proved they could make themselves rich - but the Labour Luddites wouldn't allow them to carry on with their research.

    We must now ensure the Dear Leader's vision of an austere world is fully realised through the mantra inspired by his acolytes IDS, Osbourne & The May/Gove partnership: Work - Pay - Obey

  2. The residuum must be told what to think and how to think , they have only themselves to blame for their poverty ignorance and general stupor. They are pulling the deserving ones down. and if this does not work there are other solutions.

    If this is said enough sadly the working sheep believe it and do their masters biding and this is where probation is heading too.

    A group I work with are setting up "Time Banking" for the unemployed and whilst we are at it we will be debunking all the Orwellian bollocks with a much more radical politics.


    1. I am not sure there are major differences between the controls placed on, and humiliations experienced by, the employed and the unemployed. There are political expectations pressing down on both groups to prove their competitive worth in alienating workplaces. Psychology has a long history in workplaces, through psychometrics, ergonomics and so-called scientific management.

      And it's not always been a benign presence. In the U.S. They used psychologists to screen out potential union supporters from new recruits. Between 1974 and 1984, one firm trained over 27,000 managers and supervisors to "make unions unnecessary". The psychologists also provided companies with workforce profiles concerning their susceptibility to union influences. (see Union Busting - Wikipedia)

      And in recent years probation have made extensive use of psychometrics and in their selection of recruits for training and I have always felt there was something Orwellian about 'assessment/selection centres' in their search for those who would fit in. And, of course, the fingerprints of psychologists are all over OASys with it's obsession on simplistic scoring and weighting of 'criminogenic' factors that locate fault-lines mostly in the individual rather than highlighting the impact of social and economic inequalities on behaviour, as so well evidenced in the book The Spirit Level.

  3. Perhaps this is the extension of 'treatment' for those who commit offences. It didn't take long for 'Treatment managers' and 'accredited programmes' , many of which have involved psychologists, to become accepted and now go unquestioned. People are held in prison for longer than may previously have been considered necessary, because 'they haven't completed any offence focused work, the apparent belief being that sitting through one of these programmes will , seemingly without question' do them good. If they don't express attitudes that support they' have been done good' then it is they , not the programme ( or the tutors ) that have failed.Then we move to having Directors , that we can now be considered insubordinate and the employment of people to manage who ' only do it because they are told to '

    1. I think the point about treatment and right to liberty is a point that can never be made often enough. Under the guise of treatment, individuals can be kept in prison forever. And as we know from the public protection sentences, you could end up doing extra years just in order to complete a programme to correct your distorted thinking. This is not a million miles from the Soviet practice of incarcerating dissidents in psychiatric hospitals and, of course, it was not so long ago in this country that homosexuals were given the choice sometimes of going to prison or being treated in the community with testosterone, as happened with Alan Turing. And for those imprisoned they could demonstrate their willingness to change their distorted thinking through aversion therapy either by taking vomit-inducing drugs or agreeing to be electrocuted. Rehabilitation can sometimes be far more hazardous sentencing objective than straightforward retribution.

    2. Offender behaviour programmes are useless. They have been proven not to work i.e. they don;t change people's ideas or ways of thinking. Many probation officers and prison staff acknowledge this but claim that prisoners must be forced to do these pointless useless courses simply because probation have nothing else to replace them with and at least making people do these ridiculous courses makes it look as if probation is actually doing something. At the end of the day the only thing that will stop someone reoffending is the offender themselves and they will sooner or later reach a point in their lives when they decide to go straight irrespective of attending any offender behaviour course or not. If you measured the difference in reoffending rates between those who were forced to go on many of these useless course with those who have done none of them I'd bet you'd find absolutely no difference between the two groups in terms of propensity for reoffending

    3. The point that a person stops offending when they decide to stop offending and not before or for any other reason is absolutely right.

  4. The bloody-mindedness of workfare was demonstrated in the case of the archeology graduate who found herself some voluntary work at a museum, only to be told that a workfare assignment at Poundland was what the doctor ordered and not that, you know, highbrow stuff she was doing at the museum. Unbelievably, Ian Duncan Smith won a court case, which would have compelled her to do her Poundland duty, had she not managed to get a post in a job she found herself. It would be good to compile a list of the companies that collude in this farce, so that they could be boycotted. The Shoefayre employee, in the main article above, sums up the unfairness precisely.

    1. Actually the Tories lost in court on the Poundland case and there was a possibility that claimants would have been entitled to compensation which would have cost the government £130m. But, the Labour Party! stepped up to the plate and by abstaining in the vote helped to pass retrospective legislation that denied the compensation.

    2. And there's blue labour on a nutshell..

  5. Latest on Unions disc with Sodexo here

  6. Who gets the contract?