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Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality,
activation and the role of psychology in UK
government workfare programmes
Department of English and
Humanities, School of Arts,
Birkbeck, University of London,
Dr Lynne Friedli, 22 Mayton
Street, London N7 6QR, UK;
Accepted 9 February 2015
To cite: Friedli L, Stearn R.
Med Humanit 2015;41:
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 terri-
ﬁed 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
This paper considers the role of psychology in formu-
lating, gaining consent for and delivering neoliberal
welfare reform, and the ethical and political issues
this raises. It focuses on the coercive uses of psych-
ology 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 conditional-
ity’—the requirement to demonstrate certain atti-
tudes or attributes in order to receive beneﬁts or
other support, notably food.
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
The role of workfare in regulating labour
through enforcing low-paid, insecure work—‘creat-
ing workers for jobs that nobody wants’—has been
widely debated, frequently in connection with
increased welfare conditionality.
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.
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 employ-
ment. 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 dif-
ferentiates you, the failed and undeserving jobsee-
ker, from other more deserving and successful
Scan to access more
For example, eligibility to receive cheap food from
community shops (‘inspiring motivation and conﬁdence in
our members’) requires beneﬁciaries to be motivated to
make positive change in their lives and to sign up to a
personal and professional development programme, the
40 Friedli L, et al.Med Humanit 2015;41:40–47. doi:10.1136/medhum-2014-010622
Critical medical humanities
jobseekers is a set of attitudes and emotional orientations.
The aim is not a job, but the generic skill, attribute or dispos-
ition 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,
role of strengths-based discourse in the formation of systems of
discipline and control and the formulation of active welfare sub-
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 work-
fare and in the emerging employment services industry; and the
coercive and punitive nature of many psycho-policy interven-
tions. 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 psych-
ology and the wider ‘well-being’ﬁeld, and to generate greater
debate about professional accountability for these development-
We draw on personal testimonies of people experiencing
UK policy and document analysis, and social media
records of the activity of campaigns opposed to workfare.
In the last three decades, welfare reforms in many rich demo-
cratic states have led to increased emphasis on the conditionality
of social security payments and the ‘activation’of their recipients,
avowedly to avert or correct ethical and psychological ‘depend-
ency’and other forms of debility, depression and etiolated work
12 13 20 22 23
which are widely thought to be both symptom
and cause of unemployment.
Failure to meet conditions placed
on eligibility for beneﬁts is punished directly by beneﬁt sanctions
(the part or total cessation of social security payments for a given
period of time),
as well as indirectly by compulsory ‘support’
in the form of workfare, ‘skills training’, psychological referral or
psychometric testing. The conditions are diverse in kind as well
as wide-ranging: from age and residence criteria, or restrictions
on numbers of (paid) hours worked per week, to possession of
certain levels of qualiﬁcations and the capacity to demonstrate
positive opinions on employment.
The expansion of condition-
ality in this way is linked to the continually increasing rate at
which Jobseeker’s Allowance ( JSA) and Employment and
Support Allowance claimants are sanctioned (the three months to
September 2013 saw JSA claimants sanctioned at a rate of 6% of
claimants per month, the highest since the introduction of JSA in
Failure to participate in a training or employment
scheme is the most frequently occurring ‘failure’that results in a
sanction. These mandatory interventions designed to ‘shift atti-
tudes and beliefs’have become an important element of ‘activat-
ing’the unemployed, and are the focus of this paper.
Although payments by the state to people without jobs have been
tied to desirable patterns of behaviour since their ﬁrst institu-
22 23 28–31
the unemployment policies of reformed welfare
states now aim at more complete and intimate behaviour change
through coercive mechanisms of greater scope.
The reorganisation of welfare in the UK accompanying
current moves to replace six working-age beneﬁts with Universal
Credit (UC) by 2017 is the latest face of this broader trend.
Under UC, each claimant will be issued with a Claimant
Commitment (CC) (which has already replaced the Jobseeker’s
Agreement for new claimants at many Jobcentres). The CC
enables Jobcentre staff to check claimants’behaviour against the
range of ‘work-related requirements’to which they have com-
These requirements are sorted into a tiered system of
conditionality. UC furthers the Department for Work and
Pensions’(DWP) project of personalised behavioural condition-
of which psychological coercion and governance—
imposed in and through workfare—is an integral part. For the
ﬁrst time, under UC, these forms of conditionality are extended
to claimants also in work.
By workfare we mean the ‘work-for-your-beneﬁts’schemes in
which unemployed people are forced to work for a charity, busi-
ness, social enterprise, public service or government agency in
order to continue to be eligible for beneﬁts. We also include the
range of skills-building and motivational workshops that are
presented alongside such schemes—as part of a range of activ-
ities that unemployed people are obliged to undertake—and
schemes that are composed of training courses in tandem with
unpaid work (Skills Conditionality is an example of the former;
Traineeships and Sector-Based Work Academies of the latter).
The participation of unemployed people in schemes with train-
ing elements is secured by the same means as work placement
schemes: through the threat—tacit or explicit, indirect or direct
—of sanctions. It is important that they be looked at as a group
(and that we adopt a deﬁnite but not too narrow deﬁnition of
workfare) since this is both how they are implemented and how
they impact on unemployed people.
In the UK, as in many other Western states, workfare is orga-
nised within an employment services sector that extensively
contracts out services to for-proﬁt and non-proﬁt organisa-
Where UK policy differs is in the commissioning prac-
tices of DWP, which has outsourced the procurement, design
and arrangement of employment services and unpaid work pla-
cements to a small number of large-scale for-proﬁt companies.
The Jobcentre refers a claimant to a ‘prime’contractor (Ingeus,
A4e, G4S, Serco) that provides some services and mandatory
forms of assistance and contracts out others to smaller contrac-
tors, which arrange unpaid work placements at charities and
businesses. Government contracts specify little about the details
of the services to be provided: what control there is, govern-
ment exerts through a tiered system of ‘payment by
Medical humanities is an emerging ﬁeld. Some of the central themes
of enquiry relevant to our concern with the use of psychology to
discipline citizens are explored through the work of the Centre for
Medical Humanities in Durham (https://www.dur.ac.uk/cmh/
Social media are a primary source of personal accounts of the
experience of psychological coercion; Twitter Facebook, the comments
section of online articles and blog platforms represent some of the few
opportunities for claimants to speak out about the content of mandatory
training courses, psychological ‘referrals’, receiving daily ‘positive’
emails and the prevalence of positive psychology ‘messaging’by
Jobcentres and welfare-to-work subcontractors. Boycott Workfare also
receives personal testimonies via email and the ‘name and shame’forms
submitted to the website (identifying business and charity users of
workfare schemes). We deal with these forms of personal document in
the course of our activities with Boycott Workfare; they can be made
public where permission has been granted from the person involved. We
have also sought permission before citing experiences detailed in blogs
and other social media accounts. The ephemeral nature of social media,
the use of pseudonyms, claimants’fears of sanctions and retribution if
identiﬁed and the painful nature of many of the experiences described
raise a number of difﬁculties in accessing, collecting and selecting these
data. Addressing these challenges is an important future research agenda
for the medical humanities and forms part of a project on workfare at
the Wellcome Trust.
Friedli L, et al.Med Humanit 2015;41:40–47. doi:10.1136/medhum-2014-010622 41
Critical medical humanities
37 39 40
The fact that most psycho-compulsion occurs
within this ‘black box’has important implications since there is
virtually no oversight of the content of such compulsions, no
professional accountability and no effective means of appeal
Workfare is central to normalisation of the idea that harsh
sanctions should be used to underwrite certain obligations of
citizenship, and to singling out as the paramount obligation the
enforcement of work, with no regard to the speciﬁc character of
that work or to a person’s other responsibilities.
furthers the separation of work and livelihood and normalises
the idea that certain groups of people are not entitled to
payment for their labour and that lengthy periods of unpaid
labour (eg, internships or ‘volunteering’) are a precondition for
employment. In this way, it undermines the security, pay and
conditions of all workers and non-workers.
demands that people assent to the idea that paid work as it is
currently organised is the only route to both personal fulﬁlment
and public value and obscures the economic reality of a dual
labour market that produces and relies upon the stratiﬁcation of
work and the escalating inequalities in income and quality of
Psycho-compulsion, deﬁned as the imposition of psychological
explanations for unemployment, together with mandatory activ-
ities intended to modify beliefs, attitude, disposition or person-
ality, has become a more and more central feature of activating
the unemployed and hence of people’s experience of unemploy-
ment. There has been little debate about the recruitment of
psychology—and, by implication, psychologists—into monitor-
ing, modifying and punishing people who claim social security
or research into the impact of mandatory positive
affect on an expanding range of ‘unproductive’or failing citi-
those who are out of work, not working enough, not
earning enough and/or failing to seek work with sufﬁcient
A number of reports produced for the Cabinet Ofﬁce under
both the previous Labour government and the current Coalition
have drawn centrally upon psychology and behavioural economics
for the legitimation and direction of behaviour change policy or
The mission of the Cabinet’s
Behavioural Insights Team or ‘nudge unit’—‘the application of
behavioural science and psychology to public policy’—is a recent
statement in this tradition.
The psychological sciences in com-
bination with behavioural economics provide both an ostensibly
scientiﬁc model and the means for a positive self-image for policy-
makers and practitioners within the welfare-to-work sector. This
notion has considerable traction so that even critics of recent UK
government active labour market policies who advocate the aboli-
tion of beneﬁt sanctions suggest that
insofar as it is desirable to attempt to inﬂuence claimants’behav-
iour […] this should be done through a scientiﬁc approach.
Psychology allied to behavioural economics allows the sector
to consolidate its self-conception as an industry in its own right
that sets its own standards and regulates itself via the
Employment Related Services Association (established 2005)
and the Institute of Employability Professionals (launched
In this setting, psychology (and ‘therapy discourse’more gener-
ally) coproduces and validates the core mythologies of neoliberal-
ism, while simultaneously undermining and eroding alternative
discourses—of solidarity, collectivity and interdependence.
functions not only to reinforce the view that achieving the status
of (paid) working citizen is ‘the pinnacle of human experience’
but also to construct a very speciﬁcdeﬁnition of the atti-
tudes, beliefs and attributes that constitute ‘employability’:the
‘right kind of subject’;
the ‘right kind of affect’.
The roll-call of
valued characteristics familiar from positive psychology, the well-
being industry and public health—‘conﬁdence, optimism, self-
efﬁcacy, aspiration’—are imposed in and through programmes of
mandatory training and job preparation. They also feature cen-
trally in the way in which people receiving beneﬁts frame their
The duties of citizenship are expanded to
include enforced rational self-governance so that liberal subjects’
capabilities, inclinations and desires are in accord with values and
expectations that are identiﬁed as already given by a civil society
centred on the labour market.
For example, in Labour MP
Graham Allen’s 2011 report on early intervention public health
and education policy, ‘life readiness’is said to consist in
having the social and emotional capability to enter the labour
market; understanding the importance and the social, health and
emotional beneﬁts of entering work, the impacts of drug and
alcohol misuse, crime and domestic and other violence (p.9).
These kinds of policies, seeking to model in unemployed
people the imperatives of the market, are carried out by means
of the market, through those who are paid to ‘activate’clai-
mants and those who beneﬁt from their unpaid labour.
The growth and inﬂuence of discourses of positive affect in
these and other systems of governance and ‘technologies of the
self ’has been widely observed.
16–18 21 32 47 48
discourse’is a signiﬁcant policy imperative in both health and
welfare reform. Positive affect plays an important supporting
role in policy preoccupations with how best to manage the
intersection of long-term conditions and long-term unemploy-
ment, exempliﬁed in the shift from rest cure (signiﬁed by the
sick note), to work cure (signiﬁed by the ﬁt note).
The psychological attributes and dispositions of individuals
and communities (the ostensible presence or absence of opti-
mism, aspiration, self-efﬁcacy, conscientiousness, sense of coher-
ence) are being used to account for unemployment (and for a
range of other social outcomes, notably health inequalities) and
are promoted via psychological interventions that aim to modify
cognitive function or emotional disposition/affect.
for these interventions is an explicit or implicit condition for
receiving support. These trends intersect with and are reinforced
by the parallel rise in brain science—‘reading social problems
through understanding the brain’—which correlates outcomes
(crime, addiction, health behaviour, educational attainment)
with brain structure.
Conditions of psychological deﬁcit are
both scientiﬁcally and medically legitimised. A cheerful dispos-
ition, in combination with a thankful heart and highly devel-
oped ‘executive control’, is so widely celebrated in the policy
literature that the politics of this reiﬁcation are rarely ques-
These developments may help to explain what lies
behind the marked decline in solidarity with unemployed citi-
zens and welfare claimants and the heightened stigma in daily
life and public discourse experienced by people who are poor.
They also tend to preclude acknowledgement of the corporate
and charitable sector beneﬁciaries of workfare and the ‘low pay,
no pay’economy that workfare supports, or the estimated £25
billion per annum paid in beneﬁts to workers receiving wages
below subsistence levels.
42 Friedli L, et al.Med Humanit 2015;41:40–47. doi:10.1136/medhum-2014-010622
Critical medical humanities
BOYCOTT WORKFARE: HISTORY OF A CAMPAIGN
While there is considerable evidence of this hardening of public
attitudes towards beneﬁt claimants, the value of mandatory
unpaid work activity and enforced ‘volunteering’is strongly
contested. There are numerous campaigning and claimant soli-
darity groups in the UK and the rest of Europe whose activities
are concentrated in this area. One is Boycott Workfare, which
evolved through the work of people who have experienced
workfare in the UK. Formed in 2010, it is a movement that
campaigns against the imposition of forced, unpaid work on
several levels: by taking action to expose the involvement of
companies and other entities in taking or arranging placements
or providing mandatory training, and by acting as a point of
information for claimants and other claimants’organisations:
We expose and take action against companies and organisations
proﬁting from workfare; encourage organisations to pledge to
boycott it; and actively inform people of their rights.
Informing people of their rights means proposing a model of
activity opposed to and subversive of the ‘activated’welfare
Undoing the legitimacy conferred on workfare, in part by its
association with psychology, is a central concern of the cam-
paign, as is counteracting the variously inﬂected negative stereo-
type of unemployed people. The ‘naming and shaming’of
organisations participating in workfare has led large numbers to
withdraw and is a central factor in DWP efforts not to publish
names of those involved. For example, the DWP argued (in
appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision that they
must publish the names of companies involved in Mandatory
Work Activity) that making this information public “would have
been likely to have led to the collapse of the […] scheme”.
Concerns that mandatory placements undermine the meaning of
volunteering have also led many voluntary agencies to sign a
‘keep volunteering voluntary’agreement, undertaking not to
take part in workfare schemes.
WAI TIN G FO R A WAGE
It is important to understand the extent to which activities that
until very recently would have been classiﬁed as ‘work’are now
rebranded as ‘work preparation’and are hence both unpaid and
characterised in terms of ‘psychological preparation’. The
Apprenticeship and Traineeship Database reveals the very wide
range of private sector organisations offering ‘unpaid’opportun-
ities—which are seen to enable young people to become ‘work
ready’, an attribute that is essentially about ‘motivation’and the
‘right attitude’to work. Tasks that would once have provided
paid Saturday or holiday jobs for young people are now pro-
vided free of charge to major employers, often in the absence of
any return, apart from an ‘exit interview’. One unpaid trainee-
ship opportunity lists the following tasks:
check and top up under bonnet levels on a vehicle; check anti-
freeze content and recommend action; check and adjust tyre
pressures; ﬁt a standard light vehicle tyre; balance steel and alloy
wheels; change oil and ﬁlter; replace spark plugs on a 4 cylinder
engine; replace an air ﬁlter; torque up wheel nuts to the correct
There are currently around 50 traineeships on offer in the
National Health Service where for no pay you can do
administration and reception work; hospitality and catering;
service areas, including portering and post; assisting in clinical
One gets little in return for working unpaid 4 days per week,
for 30 h, for up to 6 months in any of these rebranded jobs:
We expect all traineeships to offer a guaranteed interview with
the work placement host at the end of the placement. Where pos-
sible, the young person should receive a real job interview where
a post or apprenticeship has become available. However, we rec-
ognise that this will not always be feasible and in these cases a
formal exit interview with the employer who provided their
work placement will help the young person to practice and
prepare for future opportunities (p.13).
Like workfare, traineeships contribute to the separation of
work activity from wages. An unemployed person creates value
and generates income for everyone except themselves. Recent
developments show that ‘waiting for a wage’has been extended
to job applicants, with some employers requiring applicants to
undertake ‘voluntary shifts’before receiving a job offer: “I had
interview in May for Events job. They wanted me to work 2
week trial for free! UNPAID! 8.30am/10pm”(comment by
Shaun, on Thomson).
THE LIVED EXPERIENCE OF WORKFARE
The imposition of psychological explanations for unemploy-
ment functions to erase the economic realities of the labour
market and authorises the extension of state-sanctioned surveil-
lance to psychological characteristics. Compulsory positive
affect and psychological authority are being applied in workfare
in order to (1) identify ostensible psychological barriers to
gaining employment and to inculcate attributes and attitudes
said to increase employability; (2) punish people for non-
compliance (through conditionality and beneﬁt sanctions) and
(3) legitimise workfare and other coercive labour market
These developments mean that positive psychology is now as
signiﬁcant a feature of conditionality in the lives of those who
are poor as going to church once was, and they share a common
evangelical language: “something within the spirit of individuals
living within deprived communities that needs healed”.
Unfortunately, the compulsions of positive affect are not con-
ﬁned to Sundays.
I am shy and have difﬁculty speaking to people and I will not do
play acting in front of a group of people I am very uncomfortable
with […] I was told I would be sanctioned if I didn’t take part,
so I said I would get up, but I am not speaking […] After that,
we had to ﬁll out yet another ‘beneﬁts of being assertive’sheet.
The consistent failure of workfare interventions to achieve
their stated aim of improving work outcomes—both in the UK
and internationally—has resulted in a much greater focus on
psychological or ‘soft outcomes’, said to ‘move people closer to
38–42 76 77
A 2012 evaluation of an ineffective
three-stranded scheme, on which DWP’s recent ‘Help to Work’
three-part programme is based, found that
while there was no signiﬁcant difference in job outcomes at the
end of the programme the OCM
were successful in achieving soft outcomes such as increases in
motivation, conﬁdence, job-seeking behaviour and a positive
Ongoing Case Management: more intense Jobcentre-based
surveillance, coupled with a range of mandatory activities.
Community Action Plan: a 6-month-long workfare placement,
coupled with supported job search (identical to the Community Work
Placement strand of the current ‘Help to Work’scheme).
Friedli L, et al.Med Humanit 2015;41:40–47. doi:10.1136/medhum-2014-010622 43
Critical medical humanities
change in attitudes to work. These softer impacts may yet trans-
late into job outcomes and sign off from JSA (p.4).
‘Soft outcomes’disarticulate work and wages by treating a job
as something that may be gained by possessing the right attitude
to work (an attitude for which one must labour) and work as
something to be valued because it evinces and activates the right
attitude in the (potential) employee—rather than because it
allows one to purchase a living. At the same time, the means by
which soft outcomes are regulated (sanctions: for failures in atti-
tude and in compliance with the actions demanded by active
labour market measures) link together more closely than ever a
person’s failure to manifest the right attitude and their inability
to afford to purchase a living.
Efforts to achieve these ‘soft outcomes’are evident in the
course content of mandatory training programmes run by major
workfare contractors like A4e and Ingeus and are increasingly
apparent in the personal testimonies of claimants:
I’ve been claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for about 8 weeks.
Ihaven’t sworn or shouted at anyone. I have had 3 advisor
interviews already; yesterday my adviser asked me to see their
psychologist. I did not consent. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t
look into things too deeply...& that I am asking too many
The choice was to accept psych eval, or go straight to MWA.
Yo u ’ve got all these hooks on you…it’s your way of being…you
need to shift the way you look at it. You’ve got all this anger and
frustration and that’s stopping you from getting a job. It comes
across in your CV.
I duly attended the ofﬁces of A4e and (along with 6 other “custo-
mers”) was treated to INSPIRE. This turned out to be a session
on Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) run by an outside
company claiming to be “Master Practitioners in NLP”.Iwas
“mandated”to attend under threat of loss of beneﬁts and was
effectively unable to leave the session because of the same ever
My ‘advisor’said I needed to see a psychologist because I was
tearful and anxious after having my JSA cut for 4 weeks despite
having a young child to look after by myself. When I said I did
not trust anyone who ﬁnds it acceptable to starve others as a pun-
ishment, he told me that I was paranoid and again, needed to see
The A4e Engage Module states: “students will learn how to
develop the right mindset which will appeal to employers”(other
elements of this module are assertiveness, conﬁdence, beneﬁts of
work, motivation and enhance your mood). As Esther McVey,
Minister of State for Employment, announced recently, jobsee-
kers are expected to take steps to make themselves attractive to
employers: “employers looking to ﬁll vacancies want people who
are prepared, enthusiastic and job-ready”.
submit to coerced labour becomes an index of the (approved) dis-
position and beliefs possessed by an unemployed person.
Izzy Koksal, in her blog on the experience of A4e training,
describes the impact of being surrounded by motivational quotes,
with their persistent emphasis on individual responsibility for
unemployment and the perils of negative thinking.
A sheet full
of afﬁrmations, handed out to participants in the ‘conﬁdence
building’workshops that form part of Ingeus’delivery of the
Work Programme, include such motivational statements as
Go hard, or go home
My only limitations are the ones I set for myself
Failure is the path of least persistence
Success is getting up one more time than you fall down
It’s always too soon to quit
Nobody ever drowned in sweat
The sin isn’t falling down but staying down
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent
People have described feelings of anger, humiliation and
depression on receiving daily ‘positive’emails from welfare to
work contractors such as A4e: “success is the only option”;
“we’re getting there”;“smile at life”;“this can be the greatest,
most fulﬁlling day you’ve ever known. For that to happen, you
have to allow it”(Warren Clark, personal communication,
Reﬂecting on the feedback they received from Learn Direct
(a major training provider), following a 4-week unpaid place-
ment at the Salvation Army, one person wrote:
attitude to work….no idea why they rated me poor for this,
I was willing to work, I travelled by train every day then walked
a long walk from Edinburgh station to the store every single day
for 4 weeks!, and done everything asked plus more!
He is concerned because deﬁcits in attitude and motivation
can and do trigger sanctions. Psycho-coercion of this kind is dir-
ectly contributing to the escalation of the number of sanctions
being applied, forcing people off beneﬁts and plunging growing
numbers into poverty:
28 42–44 53 89 90
eligibility for both
out-of-work and in-work beneﬁts is contingent not only on
certain behaviours but also on possession of positive affect; con-
ditionality is linked to the ‘employability’mindset. For example,
one of the criteria for being sent on Community Work
Placements (unpaid work for 30 h per week, for 26 weeks) is
‘lack of motivation’, although this is never deﬁned.
The messages in the course handout for Ingeus’mandatory
‘Healthy Attitudes for Living’course take these themes a step
further, intended, perhaps, to counter any residual yearnings in
the jobseeker for either justice or security and to pre-empt
reﬂection on the social gradient in ‘bad things happening’:
Sometimes life’s just plain unfair. Bad things happen to the nicest
of people. On top of being unfair, life’s unpredictable and uncer-
tain a great deal of the time. And really, that’s just the way life is
[…] If you can accept the cold hard reality of injustice and uncer-
tainty, you’re far more likely to bounce back when life slaps you
in the face. You’re also less likely to be anxious about making
decisions and taking risks. But remember, you can still strive to
play fair yourself.
This Ingeus module argues that one “common thinking trap”
is “catastrophising”:“you may exaggerate or magnify the nega-
tive aspect of an event”;“you may view the probability of disas-
ter as great”. One is encouraged to “[recognise] the negative
thinking error”and take “calculated risks”.
Of course, power
over certain catastrophes lies with Ingeus staff, who are respon-
sible for raising a ‘compliance doubt’against an unemployed
person, the ﬁrst step towards being sanctioned. In addition to
mandatory training informed by positive psychology, claimants
may also be subjected to strengths-based interventions, including
online psychometric testing—‘failure to comply may result in
loss of beneﬁts’.
And as Cromby and Willis have noted,
every aspect of the Values in Action ‘Inventory of Signature
Strengths’test recently imposed on claimants contravened the
British Psychological Society’s (BPS) ethical code.
44 Friedli L, et al.Med Humanit 2015;41:40–47. doi:10.1136/medhum-2014-010622
Critical medical humanities
Working on psychological deﬁcits becomes the full-time,
unpaid labour of millions of people,
which, together with
mandatory job search activities, ensures that these days people
who are poor have no money, no time—and no place:
Basically what I’m saying in short is that I feel there is no place in
society for a quiet, shy, creative person like me. And now I feel I
don’t even deserve to call myself creative, because I don’teven
do that anymore, because I am too depressed.
In a scheme recently announced, claimants will undergo inter-
views to assess whether they have a ‘psychological resistance’to
work, along with attitude proﬁling to judge whether they are
‘bewildered, despondent or determined’.
Those deemed ‘less
mentally ﬁt’will be subject to more intensive coaching, while
those who are ‘optimistic’—such as graduates or those who have
recently been made redundant—can be placed on less rigorous
regimes. This classiﬁcation system will be used to recruit to a
new scheme obliging those who are long-term unemployed to
spend 35 h a week at a job centre.
The context in which positive psychology’s motivational
techniques are deployed, then, is one structured by a regime
of tacit and explicit threat and coercion, in which one can
never be sure whether or not a sanction will be tagged to a
particular instance of behaviour or attitude. As many ﬁrst-
hand accounts witness, Jobcentres and the premises of
welfare-to-work contractors are not neutral settings for inter-
ventions or decisions about the relative degree of unemployed
people’s material hardship, ‘willingness to work’,‘readiness’
for work or ‘resistance’to work: they are intensely
anxiety-inducing and intimidating locations that bear witness
to marked imbalances of power.
What is perhaps more noteworthy than all these develop-
ments is the response of the professional body responsible for
ethics and accountability of psychology and psychologists. BPS
has conﬁned itself to saying that such tests must be administered
by experienced users of psychometrics under supervision of a
[T]he voices of resistance against the abjectifying logics of neo-
liberal governmentality are growing louder ( p.2).
The participation of psychology and psychologists in the deliv-
ery of coercive goals in welfare reform clearly raises ethical
questions. As Wright ( p.2)
has observed, “the active welfare
subject is a ﬁgure of aspiration, a transformation possible only
via coerced self improvement”. Psychology now plays a central
and formative role in stigmatising the ‘existence and behaviour
of various categories of poor citizens’(p.9)
and in legitimating
the measures taken to transform and activate them. Personality,
disposition and behaviour are abstracted from context, history
and political struggle, obscuring the fact that the distinction
between those with appropriate levels of ‘optimism’and those
without is essentially a class distinction.
related activity and ‘supported job searches’involve tasks experi-
enced as humiliating and pointless by jobseekers:
tesque daily practices of condemnation and disenfranchisement’
that contribute to the social abjection of the most socially and
economically disadvantaged citizens (pp.170–1).
There is no
evidence that work programme psycho-interventions increase
the likelihood of gaining paid work that lasts any length of
time. In perpetuating notions of psychological failure, they shift
attention away from the social patterning of unemployment and
from wider trends: market failure, precarity, the rise of in-work
poverty, the cost of living crisis and the scale of income inequal-
They contribute centrally to the reiﬁcation of paid
work and the concomitant devaluing and discounting of all
other activities, contributions, values and commitments. Above
all, psychology is implicated in what amounts to a ‘substitution
of outcomes’, where the modiﬁcation of psychological attributes
stands in for delivering actual improvements in household
income or increasing the availability of real paid work.
In the reiﬁcation of positive affect, what is absent is any refer-
ence to the contested nature of constructs such as personality
and attitude, their ideological underpinnings and the pro-
cesses through which speciﬁc characteristics or attributes
acquire both social value and economic reward. In other
words, the political nature of these issues is evaded.
Psychological fundamentalism—also evident in the burgeoning
well-being industry—together with the rise of psychological
conditionality, has a very direct impact on the lives of people
claiming welfare beneﬁts. This impact has barely been docu-
mented and highlights the need for deeper research scrutiny
and more pressing questions about relationships between
psychology and the medical humanities. The ‘black boxing’to
whichwehavereferredalsomeansthat—for both political
and methodological reasons—independent research is espe-
cially important in tracing and making transparent the conﬂu-
ence between medico-corporate interests and manifold forms
of labour market governance.
Even so, these questions are being asked elsewhere, in the
emergence of multiple forms of resistance to neoliberal deﬁni-
tions of value and worth and to the erosion of hard-won rights
of social citizenship. Workfare has become an important site for
satire on the fetishisation of paid work, for struggle over deﬁni-
tions of a meaningful and productive life and for attempts to
embrace myriad shades of human experience and human subjec-
tivities, with notable contributions from those whose welfare
dependency is most decried.
The disability rights
movement has played a central role in challenging the discourse
of ‘no legitimate dependency’and in using direct action to
express solidarity and to forge discourses and practices that can
shape positive identities for people claiming social security.
the coercive use of positive affect in workfare demonstrates,
there are good reasons to prefer the politics of rights and justice
to the discourses of positive psychology.
Acknowledgements An early version of this paper was presented at the Critical
Medical Humanities Symposium at Durham University (4–5 November 2013) and
was published as a blog by the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University
positive-affect-as-coercive-strategy-the-case-of-workfare/.) A critique of ‘psycho-
compulsion’also appeared in Friedli L. A response: the ethics of psycho-policy—
reﬂections on the role of psychology in public health and workfare. Clinical
Psychology Forum 2014; 256: 11–16. This work now contributes to Lynne Friedli’s
collaboration with Hubbub, an interdisciplinary exploration of rest and its opposites
funded by the Wellcome Trust (see: http://hubbubgroup.org/). We would like to
acknowledge the work and testimony of Boycott Workfare.
Contributors LF and RS both contributed to the research and writing of this
paper. LF was invited to participate in the Critical Medical Humanities Symposium at
Durham University, which was the occasion for much of the original research; an
invitation was subsequently extended to RS at her request. Portions of this paper
that are addressed speciﬁcally to psycho-compulsion are based on LF’s research.
More than 1.6 million people had joined the Work Programme alone
as of June 2014.
Friedli L, et al.Med Humanit 2015;41:40–47. doi:10.1136/medhum-2014-010622 45
Critical medical humanities
Funding Research for this article was funded by the Wellcome Trust, grant number
Competing interests LF and RS are members of Boycott Workfare, an
organisation campaigning to abolish workfare.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.
Open Access This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the
terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits
others to distribute, remix, adapt and build upon this work, for commercial use,
provided the original work is properly cited. See: http://creativecommons.org/
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