Transformation

It's off to fucking work we go: the politics of workplace misery

Not only is psychological distress in the workplace seen as normal, it is valorised. As more stress equals more success, misery becomes desirable.

Simon Vickery
10 October 2014
Despair at grad school. Credit: Facebook/Jorge Cham.

Piled Higher and Deeper is a long-running comic strip drawn by an American academic called Jorge Cham. In it, Cham affectionately bemoans the trials and tribulations– psychological, emotional, and economic–of life as a PhD student.

It’s become common practice for students to share it with their colleagues as a kind of gesture of commiseration. “Don’t worry,” it says, “I know what stresses and upsets you’re experiencing. You’re not alone. This is how everybody feels, it’s perfectly normal.”

This solidarity in workplace misery is by no means unique to PhD students, or indeed to the HE sector, and we might tend to look on such interactions with colleagues–not to mention the many and various uncritical representations of workplace misery in popular culture, the relentless drudgery of office work being a particular favourite–as harmless, even comforting and supportive.

But these exchanges are just one example of the normalisation of anxiety and unhappiness in the workplace. Moreover, not only is this psychological distress normalised, it is valorised–rendered desirable because it becomes a benchmark against which to measure achievement. PhD students are part of a competitive sector with a precarious future, as are many other students and working people. In these circumstances, knowing that you’re doing, even feeling, the right things–those things that are an essential ingredient of success–can and does become incredibly important to people.

Consequently, psychological distress becomes internalised as a marker of attainment, with more stress equalling more success.

A series of adverts produced by the government of Ontario earlier this year neatly encapsulates how, in a climate of increasing job insecurity, suffering is not only assumed to be part and parcel of many people’s working lives, but is even considered to be an asset. These videos, entitled Ready. Set. Work. and used to advertise Ontario government provisions for young people seeking employment, show job seekers scaling buildings and crawling through ventilation ducts merely to get the attention of potential employers.

Each video ends with the line ‘You’ve got ambition’, the implication being that the ‘ambitious’–and therefore the soon to be successfully employed–young person is willing to go to incredible lengths not only in the course of their employment, but simply to be employed in the first place. The adverts are tongue-in-cheek, even outright daft, in tone, but their message is clear and serious, and the capers presented in them are not so far removed from the real-life methods some have been forced to adopt in order to get a job.

Workplace misery, and its proliferation both between individuals and across popular culture more broadly, generates passivity within the workforce. Academia is, once again, a case in point. The anxieties frequently expressed by PhD students, reflected in Piled Higher and Deeper, are often concerned with procedural and structural issues. For example, a lack of funding opportunities and the prospect of precarious employment.

A problem arises when workplace misery comes to occlude any critique of the structures which produce it–so, for example, if experiencing and communicating anxiety about the scarcity of academic jobs is considered part of being a normal, successful PhD student, then it becomes increasingly difficult to see that scarcity as being somehow avoidable.

Workplace misery therefore, more broadly, generates an attitude that sees working conditions not as something imposed from above–by the employer, the state, the market, or all three–but as an immovable, immutable set of given facts that must be bravely grappled with, but never substantially altered; a fight in which, we are told, we can expect only occasional and partial victory.

Work is very often hard, tiring, frustrating, time-consuming, alienating. We should moan to each other; when conditions are shit we should call them out as such. But let’s find ways to convert this misery into positive action, like, to take another example from HE, Justice for Cleaners, a campaign for workers' rights at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

As someone not directly involved in the campaign, it seems to me that one of its key strengths has been taking a vocabulary that posits the individual as the locus of workplace misery–that associates work with stress, anxiety, and unhappiness, and that diverts attention away from the conditions that produce these negative experiences–and replacing it with a vocabulary that urges solidarity in the fight to be treated with justice and respect at work.

Such a vocabulary will, of course, initially refer to a lack–to that which we hope for rather than that which we experience. But it can help us to identify and to stay focussed on those conditions that create misery, and to take action that affirms our right to dignity and well-being at work, rather than seeking out suffering as a mark of ‘success’.

Originally published at thecolumn.net.

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