In order to receive social security benefits, people in the UK are increasingly being forced to undergo psychology assessments and continual attitude-modification training, according to research published in BMJ Open. The British Psychological Society expressed concern that such programs be done “ethically.”
The BMJ Open article was based on interviews with unemployed people, reports from social media, and an analysis of legislation and practices in the UK. One of the UK-based co-authors of the study also co-authored an article about the topic in The Conversation that was previously reported on by Mad in America.
“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),” the authors wrote in BMJ Open. “Increasingly, these activities include interventions intended to modify attitudes, beliefs and personality, notably through the imposition of positive affect.”
For example, unemployed interviewees in the study described feelings of “anger, humiliation and depression on receiving daily ‘positive’ emails from welfare to work contractors.” These emails would be peppered with statements aimed at increasing positive affect, such as “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”.
Meanwhile, “deficits in attitude and motivation can and do trigger sanctions,” wrote the authors. “Psycho-coercion of this kind is directly contributing to the escalation of the number of sanctions being applied, forcing people off benefits and plunging growing numbers into poverty: eligibility for both out-of-work and in-work benefits is contingent not only on certain behaviours but also on possession of positive affect; conditionality is linked to the ‘employability’ mindset. For example, one of the criteria for being sent on Community Work Placements (unpaid work for 30h per week, for 26 weeks) is ‘lack of motivation’, although this is never defined.”
“There is no evidence that work programme psycho-interventions increase the likelihood of gaining paid work that lasts any length of time,” the authors stated. “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 inequalities… 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.”
In a blog post, the British Psychological Society’s Jonathan Calder referred to the study and wrote that, “While psychology certainly has a role to play in the welfare system, it must be used ethically and effectively.” Calder then pointed to the Society’s briefing paper criticizing the UK government’s Work Capability Assessment, a psychological testing program to evaluate people’s “fitness to work”. The briefing paper requested changes to that program, including “appropriate training in assessment, scoring and interpretation for assessors” and “supervision for assessors from qualified clinicians.”
Friedli, Lynne, and Robert Stearn. “Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy: Conditionality, Activation and the Role of Psychology in UK Government Workfare Programmes.” Medical Humanities 41, no. 1 (June 1, 2015): 40–47. doi:10.1136/medhum-2014-010622. (Full text)
Psychologists Call for Reform of the Work Capability Assessment (British Psychological Society press release, June 10, 2015)
Psychology and the Unemployed (British Psychological Society press release, June 12, 2015)
Briefing Paper: A Call to Action on Work Capability Assessment Reform (British Psychological Society)