Government policy has taken worrying steps towards depicting unemployment as a mental health disorder, medical researchers have warned.
A study backed by the Wellcome Trust found that people without jobs were subject to humiliating “reprogramming” by authorities designed to change their mental states.
The researchers said the new approach, which forced upon the unemployed a “requirement to demonstrate certain attitudes or attributes in order to receive benefits or other support, notably food” raised major ethical issues.
They say such moves appear to have been taken to shift attention from the rise of in-work poverty and other market failures overseen by successive governments.
“Psychology now plays a central and formative role in stigmatising the existence and behaviour of various categories of poor citizens and in legitimating the measures taken to transform and activate them,” the authors note.
“Mandatory work-related activity and ‘supported job searches’ involve tasks experienced as humiliating and pointless by jobseekers. 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 inequalities.”
Examples of psychological conditioning provided by the authors include repeated motivational text messages sent from jobcentres, ‘evangelical’ self-help seminars and ritualised and unhelpful jobsearch activity.
The authors were also critical of unpaid work placements designed to incalculate certain to work attitudes in an unemployed person.
The Government is planning to station "psychology wellbeing professionals" in 350 Jobcentres under a scheme to be rolled out this year.
In April Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said zero hour contracts should be re-named "flexible hours contracts" and that they should be thought of as good for workers' work-life balance.
The academic study was published in the British Medical Journal’s publication Medical Humanities.
Lynne Friedli, who co-authored of the paper, said disciplinary measures often focused on the state of mind of people without jobs.
“Claimants’ ‘attitude to work’ is becoming a basis for deciding who is entitled to social security – it is no longer what you must do to get a job, but how you have to think and feel,” she said.
“This makes the Government’s proposal to locate psychologists in Job Centres particularly worrying.”
The Department for Work and Pensions dismissed the report and said jobcentres were training unemployed people so that they would reflect the needs of bosses.
“We know that being unemployed can be a difficult time, which is why our Jobcentre staff put so much time and effort into supporting people back into work as quickly as possible,” a DWP spokesperson said.
“We offer support through a range of schemes so that jobseekers have the skills and experience that today's employers need.”
Clarification: This article previous stated that "psychologists" would be posted in 350 jobcentres. The programme in question will involve "psychological wellbeing practitioners" trained on courses accredited by the British Psychological Association.
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