In this blog, Miguel Martínez Lucio, Professor in the Work and Equalities Institute and the Alliance Manchester Business School at The University of Manchester, discusses the ‘individualised’ approach to worker wellbeing and argues for a more collective approach that recognises the seriousness of mental health.
- Changing agendas in the workplace continue to undermine the regulatory health and safety frameworks that protect workers, representatives and trade unions.
- Recent emphasis on personal “wellbeing” campaigns encourages an individualised approach which can belittle the seriousness of mental health and disconnect from structural issues behind the realities experienced in work.
- The roles of health and safety committees and worker representatives are pivotal, especially since they are perceived to positively contribute to the development of initiatives that expand into workers’ mental health and stress.
Changing agendas at work
The Labour Research Department is an independent, trade union-based research organisation. If one were to review its work on stress, it would be evident that its publications have evolved in terms of their complexity and detail. Stress at Work, published in 1988, was a general set of recommendations comprising 22 pages; published in 2016, Stress and Mental Health at Work is a more detailed 64-page document focusing on the law, the use of state recommendations, and a range of unions.
This anecdotal point illustrates the increasing engagement with this issue; almost all the major trade unions now have a range of detailed texts related to stress and mental health. The widening agenda regarding these issues has been prompted by a growing awareness of their increasing presence at work, which is, in part, due to the ongoing increase in work intensification, and related issues such as bullying and violence at work.
The problem is that this consensus, which should underpin discussions at work, has been steadily challenged by various developments. For example, in the public sector, work has intensified since the mid-1980s due to a growing emphasis on commercialisation and privatisation. These developments were increasingly linked to a growing use of the discourse of quality and the role of the customer within the workplace as a way of containing and controlling the workforce, placing the customer as a de facto disciplinary mechanism for containing workers and their concerns.
Further pressure on the public sector would later emerge under a politics of austerity and cutbacks following the global financial crisis in 2008. More recently, uncertainty over the future of the UK in relation to the European Union has challenged the stability of the regulatory framework of health and safety rights which has historically protected the worker on such matters. Within this context, the consensus surrounding the role of social dialogue and union participation has been steadily undermined.
The struggle over who controls the understanding of the health and safety issues
Mirroring this – or, indeed, in great part contributing to it – is a shift in managerial philosophy that increasingly bypasses or undermines the collective voice of workers. This has been more visible in the private sector but is becoming increasingly apparent in the public sector. This shift has various dimensions.
The first appears to be somewhat more direct, through the downplaying of traditional health and safety related committees and representative structures. In many cases attempts by trade unions to link the causes of stress to work intensification have been challenged and occupational health structures, central to demands from trade unions for worker support, have been steadily bypassed or underfunded. Crucially, many managerial bodies of literature on stress increasingly downplay, or reference to a lesser degree, the role of trade unions, with emphasis instead on the role of ‘individual responsibility’ with regard to such issues.
Management strategies of wellbeing and the democratic deficit at work
Emphasis on the role of the individual is prominent within recent wellbeing campaigns which individualise the way workers approach their wellbeing, perceiving it as a matter of lifestyle. Yet referencing what an individual can do through exercise, meditation, and emotional change can actually belittle the seriousness of the question of mental health.
For many, this ‘individualised’ approach has become a ‘cover’ within contemporary organisations, a charade to obscure the much wider debate that is needed on health and safety at work. The outcomes of greater social and economic inequality are increasingly raised not only by many health and safety networks linked to the trade union movement, but also with other broader networks dealing with questions of mental health and resilience from a social and non-managerial perspective. Research indicates that current austerity measures are having major effects on the quality of working life, with extensive outcomes in terms of social and economic inequality.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was concern over the way direct communication was used by management to bypass collective voice mechanisms within the workplace and intensify work. This remains an ongoing problem. Indeed, the second increasingly indirect way in which management challenges the role of a more inclusive and embracing form of social dialogue around health and safety relates to the development of direct forms of communication. The ‘imposed’ or ‘predetermined’ wellbeing campaigns sometimes bypass worker input, allowing management to manipulate and individualise the discussion on issues such as stress. An example of this is the arbitrary and minimalist creation of ‘wellbeing champions’ who may not be properly selected, trained in health and safety matters and supported by independent worker representatives.
Alternatives grounded on worker rights and democratic participation
Trade unions have begun to take a more proactive stance as the issue of stress and mental health becomes a greater aspect of health and safety. Within this, the roles of health and safety committees and worker representatives are pivotal, especially since they are perceived to positively contribute to the development of initiatives that expand into workers’ mental health and stress.
Trade unions have also begun to create both collective and individual strategies of support that aim to contextualise and explain some of the issues that workers face in a more open manner and to represent them in cases when appropriate. There is also a growing link between non-government organisations specialising in wellbeing and trade unions and their networks, which are facilitating a more grounded discussion.
The question we all must ask ourselves is how do we ensure a participative and ethical debate on wellbeing which acts as a platform for a more sustainable long-term dialogue? What can be done to ensure that wellbeing does not pass as just another passing fad that is used in the wake of organisational ‘restructuring’ and then forgotten.