Unemployment is not a psychological disorder

12 June 2015 The Department for Work and Pensions is using language and policy to rebrand unemployment as a mental health disorder, according to a new scientific study.

12 Jun 2015| News

12 June 2015

The Department for Work and Pensions is using language and policy to rebrand unemployment as a mental health disorder, according to a new scientific study.

The study finds that unemployed people are being subjected to mental “reprogramming” by authorities if they don’t exhibit the right attitudes and outlook.

The researchers call attention to the increasing pressure on the individual to carry out “an expanding range of job search, training and work preparation activities, as well as mandatory unpaid labour (workfare)” in order to achieve characteristics said to increase employability; “[This] contribute[s] to the view that unemployment is evidence of both personal failure and psychological deficit”, rather than a social problem or a failure of a political system.

The reports finds the welfare system awash with the discourses of motivational speaking and mandatory “employability” training courses which aim to improve jobseekers “self-esteem, self-confidence and motivation”. Failure to satisfy the “requirement to demonstrate certain attitudes or attributes” results in the withdrawal of benefits or other support, raising serious ethical issues.

Responsibility for joblessness being presented as personal failure results in the stigmatisation of the unemployed in a bid to shift attention away from the rise in in-work poverty, shrinking employment rights, precarious employment, and market failure.

The authors note; “Mandatory work-related activity and ‘supported job searches’ involve tasks experienced as humiliating and pointless by jobseekers. There is no evidence that work programme psycho-interventions increase the likelihood of gaining paid work that lasts any length of time”. What workfare does achieve, however, is providing business with free labour; replacing paid jobs, and depressing wages and bargaining power. At the same time, the programme is packaged as benevolently “giving” a jobseeker the work-experience and the attributes that they are thus far deficient in.

The 2015 budget has set out plans to put therapists in jobcenters, and online cognitive behavioural therapy will also be provided in order to “improve employment outcomes” for claimants with mental health conditions. While any public service being offered by this government at seems like a positive and surprising development, it represents the conflation of mental health, a medical problem, with job seeking – a dangerous development. Jobcenters are not the right environment for mental health treatment.

The reports co-author, Lynne Friedli, described this as “Orwellian”. She said; “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”.

“This makes the government’s proposal to locate psychologists in job centres particularly worrying”.

“By repackaging unemployment as a psychological problem, attention is diverted from the realities of the UK job market and any subsequent insecurities and inequalities it produces.”

She criticised the way psychologists are being increasingly employed as “government enforcers”, calling on professional bodies to denounce the practice.

“I don’t think anything can justify forced psychological coercion. If people want to go on training courses that should be entirely voluntary”, she added.