Interpreting the Sickie
How is the modern workplace affecting our mental health? And how might psychotherapists find themselves being recruited to serve the economy rather than the client? David Frayne is the editor of a recent book about the hijacking of therapy for the purposes of work discipline. We wondered what he would make of ‘National Sickie Day’.
The HR experts ELAS coined the idea of ‘National Sickie Day’ nine years ago, to recognise the fact that the first Monday in February usually has the highest number of workers calling in sick. ELAS’ confidence that a significant number of these cases are ‘sickies’ (as opposed to simply sick people) is questionable. But National Sickie Day is nevertheless an occasion to consider the possibility of refusing today’s relentless programme of work discipline.
Reporting on National Sickie Day in 2018, the Metro noted the day’s estimated £45million cost in wages for the UK economy. But perhaps therapists can think about the sickie in a different way – not as an economic impediment or sign of a defective work ethic, but as a meaningful act of withdrawal.
In the context of workplaces which offer little scope for autonomy, pulling a sickie is often an attempt to claw a small amount of that agency back. It represents an alternative to the proud workaholism that has taken hold in some industries. In the context of rampant workplace stress and illness, perhaps the sickie can also be seen as a wise attempt to practice some self-care before the sickness sets in.
In 2018, statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive revealed that, for the first time, more than half of the recorded work days lost in the UK were due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression (some 15.4 million days over a year period). The general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Frances O’Grady, has named the problem an epidemic.
It might partly be explained in terms of the tremendous hold that employment seems to have on many people’s daily lives. Today’s 8 hour x 5 day norm does not include the time spent seeking jobs, building a CV, commuting to work, or recovering afterwards. Many organisations also aspire to total control within the workplace. The journalist, Emily Guendelsberger, has documented the dehumanisation and routine that have become a standard feature of working life for many people. Her book On the Clock details her experiences in a number of jobs, providing vivid accounts of the daily siege on her nervous system – by the chorus of alarms and timers in a McDonald’s kitchen, by the intense surveillance and multitasking in an AT&T call centre, and by the never-ending instructions of the notorious handheld computers, which route and track workers in Amazon warehouses.
In his essay for The Work Cure, Southwood suggests that it is almost banal to point to stress as a side effect of work because stress is often a deliberate organisational choice, built into the machinery. The thinking, feeling body, with its need for rest, variety, and a sense of meaning, has always to some extent been an obstacle to frictionless productivity, and it has always been an obstacle that economic rationality has tried to overcome – if not by replacing workers with machines, then with considerable investments into making workers behave like them.
When many management gurus are talking about stress as an impediment to productivity, Southwood provokes us by noting its obvious economic value. Productivity and profit are often sought by wringing worker productivity at the expense of health; the trick is to do it without allowing workers to spill over into outright sickness or work refusal. Maintaining this profitable unhappiness requires a careful balance of coercion and therapeutic compensation.
But of course, these organisational aspirations for total control are never possible, and people do refuse. Like many of the small acts of resistance and withdrawal prompted by alienating workplaces, the sickie does not by itself contain the power to change the world. After thinking about the politics of work for the best part of a decade, my ultimate question remains much the same: if these small acts of resistance are evidence of an underlying cultural disenchantment with employment, how can that disenchantment be harnessed to bring about a political alternative? Until then, the sickie is one of the few escapes open to some people.