Lynne Friedli, Robert Stearn, Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes, Medical Humanities 2015;41:40-47
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.