In this post, Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn look at the role of  psychological coercion, notably through the imposition of positive affect,  in UK Government workfare programmes. There has been little or no debate about the recruitment of psychology/psychologists into monitoring,  modifying and/or punishing  people who claim social security benefits. This silence raises important ethical questions, including about the relationship of psychology to the medical humanities.

Whistle while you work (for nothing): positive affect as coercive strategy
– the case of workfare [1]


The growth and influence of discourses of positive affect in systems of governance and ‘technologies of the self’ has been widely observed.[2]  ‘Strengths based discourse’ is a significant policy imperative in health and welfare reform[3] and underpins  ‘the application of  behavioural science and psychology to public policy’ via the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or ‘nudge unit’.  Positive affect plays an important supporting role in policy preoccupations with how best to manage the intersection of long term conditions and long term unemployment, exemplified in the shift from rest cure, (signified by the sick note), to work cure, (signified by the fit note).

The deployment of positive affect within the active labour market policies  pursued by both Labour and the Coalition is legitimated by and reinforces the economic model that UK governments have drawn on over the last thirty years, according to which long-term unemployment is itself a barrier to employment. Unemployment – ‘worklessness’ – is held to be a harmful attribute that people may acquire, linked to ideas of debility and dependency, which makes them less employable.  Hence interventions designed to change individuals’ behaviour and tackle their alleged loss of ‘employability’ are posited as a reasonable approach to a macroeconomic problem.[4]  Workfare is increasingly central to such policy, combining twin imperatives of this supply-side package, this relentless focus on claimants: to change the behaviour of people whose employment-related behaviour is deemed inadequate and to make life lived on subsistence benefits (even) more punitive and less viable.

So the use of positive affect in the delivery of workfare has far ranging consequences for people who are unemployed, sick, disabled or in ‘in work’ poverty (i.e. deemed not to be working enough hours, or not doing enough to secure ‘better paid work’).  This includes mandatory participation in ‘positive psychology’ courses and the use of psychological referral as punishment for non-compliance  (regulated and ad-hoc) with the new regimes of welfare conditionality to which people claiming out of work benefits (or in future, universal credit) are subject. In addition to those currently claiming benefits,  those  who could be at risk of doing so – notably those currently adopting ‘unhealthy behaviours’ – are also regularly subjected to the blandishments of positive thinking.[5] Populations ‘marked out for wearing out’ as Lauren Berlant puts it.[6]  Central themes include  positive affect as ‘health asset’ and potent form of personal capital – in other words, positive affect as a substitute for income and security: ‘cruel optimism’  indeed.

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’ (SCDC 2011, 3).  Unfortunately,  the compulsions of positive affect are not confined 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.[7]

‘he was determined to change my ‘being’ which was apparently what is preventing me from getting a job …. The main point which was hammered home time and again was that if we believed we could get a job, then it would happen. It was simply our mindset that was the barrier and he seemed intent on us all having mini epiphanies there and then. ‘[8]

The choice was to accept psych eval, or go straight to MWA… [9]

The rise of psychological coercion, ‘positive affect as coercive strategy’, and the recruitment of psychology/psychologists into monitoring,  modifying and/or punishing  people who claim social security benefits raises important ethical questions about psychological authority ( being ‘nasty in a nice way’ – as one person on Job Seekers’ Allowance  (JSA)  put it).  It also invites reflection on the rarity of challenges to the authority of psychology,  (Whitehead’s ‘emerging cartel of psychocrats’), given its central role in the legitimising and implementation of workfare .[10]  So our first question concerns the relationship between psychology and psychologists and the field of medical humanities – critical or otherwise.

The complex supply chains of  the Work Programme, which makes heavy use of the voluntary sector,  make this question and the self-scrutiny it ought to provoke more pressing.  Such complexity serves to insulate charitable organisations (who advise or provide services for contractors, or who arrange and benefit from placements) from the decision of whether or not to sanction claimants and from accountability for the consequences.

Compulsory positive affect and psychological authority are being applied in workfare in three (overlapping) ways:

  • to identify psychological barriers to gaining employment
  • to punish people for non-compliance
  • to inculcate attributes and attitudes said to increase employability

Psychological  barriers: lack of motivation
One of the criteria for being sent on  Community Work Placements[11] is ‘lack of motivation’, regarded in the policy literature as a significant impediment to gaining employment – although how lack of motivation is defined and identified is vague and random.  Eligibility for both out of work and in work benefits is now explicitly contingent not only on certain behaviours, but also on possession of the right affect: conditions placed on who can receive social security are confused with demands on what recipients are and do, and disallowances (questionable on other grounds) are confused with sanctions, both to the detriment of claimants.[12]  Failure to be ‘actively seeking work’ accounts for the biggest share of the colossal – and accelerating – increase in sanction rates since 2004.[13]

The consistent failure of Work Programme interventions to improve work outcomes has resulted in a much greater focus on psychological or ‘soft outcomes’ – motivation, confidence, ‘job-seeking behaviour’, ‘a positive change in attitude to work’ – said to ‘move people closer to work’.[14]  The pool of forced work options available – the number of different workfare schemes, along with traineeships, apprenticeships, and intermediate labour markets, in combination with bogus self-employment and short-term or part-time minimum wage work (participation in all of  which is compelled directly or indirectly by sanctions) – creates a field within which affect becomes a major criterion for measuring one claimant against another.   An individual can shuttle between schemes, their work entirely disengaged from pay, which becomes an attribute of mindset: a wage, if ever introduced, will ‘more faithfully replicate the experience of work’.[15]

Efforts to achieve these soft outcomes – the right affect –  are evident in the course content of mandatory training programmes run by major workfare contractors like A4e and Ingeus.  The A4e Engage Module states: ‘to appreciate the importance of mindset to employers’ : 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, enhance your mood.

It’s worth reiterating here what these and other supported job search activities involve.  They are mandatory: refusal to participate can and does result in sanctions, plunging people into absolute poverty.  Sanctions are a significant factor in the escalating use of food banks.  These activities may involve tasks experienced as humiliating and pointless by job seekers.  There is no evidence that these interventions increase the  likelihood of gaining decent paid work.  In perpetuating notions of psychological failure, they shift attention from market failure and the growth of in-work poverty.  They contribute to the wider role of psychology in  the validation of an increasingly narrow range of attributes – self efficacy, aspiration, optimism, positive thinking, assertiveness  – with no reference to the contested nature of these terms or their ideological underpinnings and the processes through which they acquire social value and economic reward.

‘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’t even do that anymore, because I am too depressed’ [16]

There are a number of personal testimonies of  people being referred to a psychologist  for non-compliant behaviour e.g. asking to record interviews with job centre advisors  or raising questions:

‘ I have been claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for about 8 weeks. I haven’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 have been told that I shouldn’t look into things too deeply… and that I am asking too many questions…. They were concerned that there might be ‘some undiagnosed mental illness’ which they said they were unqualified to identify’ (email to Boycott Workfare)

Increasing positive affect
In addition to mandatory training informed by positive psychology, claimants are subjected to a wide range of strengths based interventions, including on-line psychometric testing ( ‘failure to comply may result in loss of benefits’).[17]  As Cromby and Willis have noted, not only was the  Values in Action (VIA) ‘Inventory of Signature Strengths’ test recently imposed on claimants known to have failed validation, every aspect of its use contravened the British Psychological Society’s ethical code.[18]

The messages in the course handout for the A4e (mandatory) ‘Healthy Attitudes for Living’ course take these themes a step further, intended, perhaps, to counter any residual yearnings in the ‘job seeker’ for either justice or security.

‘Sometimes life’s just plain unfair.  Bad things happen to the nicest of people.  On top of being unfair, life’s unpredictable and uncertain a great deal of the time.  And really, that’s just the way life is…. ‘

‘Life’s unfair to pretty much everyone from time to time.  If you can accept the cold hard reality of injustice and uncertainty, 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 ‘
–  A4e Healthy Attitudes for Living

The reminder that ‘you can still play fair yourself’ delegates the role of ‘playing fair’ to people in situations of poverty and unpaid labour and of course also tends to pre-empt reflection on structural injustice.[19]

This general conspiracy of optimism, normative cheerfulness and resilience in the face of adversity, is part of a larger problem of the denial of pain,[20] companion to denial of the problem of neoliberal economics.  Positive affect as it is now deployed constitutes a more and more arduous and demeaning array of tasks whose insufficient performance is a sanctionable offence. Working on these 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 both no money and no time.

In thinking about positive affect as psychological coercion, we have  felt that the whole area of workfare is under-theorised. Perhaps partly because a surprising range of people subscribe to the view that both positive affect and work are deeply desirable, cures for many ills and sources of meaning: conferring agency and dignity.[21]

The level of professional silence on these questions is a matter of serious concern: the failure of  the British Psychological Society, for example, to engage with the issue of workfare.  When a profession gains social value  (and lucrative contracts) from instilling the very attributes admired – insisted upon – by neoliberal economics and the Cabinet Office, it must necessarily avert its gaze from those plunged into absolute poverty  by  sanctions applied for various defects of behaviour, character and attitude.  Issues of complicity are very pressing. But a shared analysis of power is a riposte to bogus and restricted agency: join the resistance.

[1] We draw on personal testimonies from people blogging about their experiences of workfare and on our own experiences with the Boycott Workfare Campaign, of which we are both members.  Our views are our own and we do not speak on behalf of Boycott Workfare or, of course, on behalf of the 1.35 million people claiming Job Seekers Allowance.

[2] Berlant Lauren (2006) Cruel Optimism,  Differences 17.5: 21-36; and New Formations (2008) (longer version);  (2007) Slow Death, Critical Inquiry 33: 754-780; Howell A & Veronka J  (2012) The Politics of Resilience & recovery in mental health care

[3] Friedli L (2012) What we’ve tried hasn’t worked: the politics of asset based public health, Critical Public Health

[4] David Webster (2005) Long-term unemployment, the invention of ‘hysteresis’ and the misdiagnosis of structural unemployment in the UK, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 29, 975-95

[5] McLean, J. 2011. Asset Based Approaches to Health Improvement: Redressing the Balance. Briefing Paper 9 Glasgow: Glasgow Centre for Population Health

[6] Berlant L (2007) Slow Death  Critical Inquiry 33:4

[7] K Day, What?! You’re Telling Me You Lost My Dunce Work? The Joy of the JobCentre Programme blog, 20 August 2013.

[8] Izzy Koksal, Adventures at A4E, Izzy Koksal blog, 13 April 2012

[9] Email to Boycott Workfare. MWA is mandatory unpaid work activity

[10] Whitehead M, Jones R and Pykett J. (2011) Governing irrationality, or a more than rational government? Reflections on the rescientisation of decision making in British public policy. Environment and Planning A 43: 2819-2837.

[11] Mandatory unpaid labour for up to 30 hours per week, for up to 30 weeks, alongside up to 15 hours per week of supported job search

[13] Ibid.; Webster points out that the definition of employment adopted in 1919 – to be unemployed one must be looking for work – has been contested ever since its inception, and was abolished for much of the 20th century.

[14] Rahim et al  (2012) Evaluation of SVLTU DWP Research Summary (emphasis added)

[15] Email from Graham Parry (Groundwork London) to Peter Purdie (Head of Estate Services, Homes for Haringey), 17th January 2012 (made available via Freedom of Information request)

[16] K Day, How Work Programme Makes Me Feel,  The Joy of the JobCentre Programme blog, 18 August 2013.

[17] The Skwawkbox, DWP: Fake Psych ‘Test’ Training Given by Unqualified ‘Experts, The Skwawkbox blog, 4 July 2013.

[19] This delegation resonates with Mel Y Chen’s description of compassion: ‘an affective obligation separated from justice.’

[20] Nussbaum M (2012) Who is the happy warrior? Philosophy, happiness research, and public policy International Review of Economics, 2012, vol. 59, issue 4, pages 335-361

[21] There is a wider debate to be had about discourses of positive affect that have their roots in resistance – notably in resistance to the imposition of psychiatric labels and diagnostic categories.  It’s an important question: what distinguishes the stories that form part of these traditions (making political meaning out of adversity) from the ‘recovery stories’ appropriated and expropriated by mental health and other institutions? Howell A and Veronka J The Politics of Resilience & recovery in mental health care


Monique Buckner · December 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm

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 punishment, he told me that I was paranoid and again, needed to see a psychologist.

skwalker1964 · December 16, 2013 at 2:19 am

Reblogged this on The SKWAWKBOX Blog and commented:
A detailed and well-sourced analysis of this government’s coercive, bullying treatment of the underprivileged and unemployed.

Lynne Friedli · December 16, 2013 at 8:22 am

Dear Monique,
Thank you for telling us about your experiences – what happened to you reflects what more and more people are reporting – that normal reactions to workfare, sanctions etc are being labelled ‘mad’ or deranged in some way. People who resist or rebel have similar experiences. I feel it’s incredibly important to keep a record of what is going on and to hold professionals involved to account. You probably know about Boycott Workfare, but if not, they are a really good source of support and information on workfare. There are also more and more local groups fighting back. thanks again for your message.
in solidarity

untynewear · December 16, 2013 at 11:35 am

Reblogged this on UNEMPLOYED IN TYNE & WEAR and commented:
An extremely interesting article originating from Durham University…

Editor · December 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Reblogged this on kickingthecat.

Gissajob · December 16, 2013 at 1:24 pm

I suffered 2 years of nonsense at the hands of A4e. This included their mandatory “Inspire” course delivered by “Masters of Nero Linguistic Programming”.
I subsequently wrote:
I have made two complaints to A4greed. The first got kicked up the food chain to Regional Manager level and I am still waiting for a reply (3 months now). I had to remin them about the second and was given a name of a HO wallah who would answer My complant Complaint was before Xmas – no reply yet! So much for their complaints process! Unfortunately you have to exhaust it before ICE will even think of getting off their bums and doing something. I decided to let the situation ride but will resurrect these 2 complaints if I get annoyed with them. Meanwhile I had to attend INSPIRE last week. I have decided to compl;ain (yes again!). This time I will be complaining to JCP with a copy to my MP:_

Jobcentreplus Manager


Dear Sir or Madam,
A4e and Neuro Linguistic Programming

Please treat the following as a formal complaint.

The background to this complaint is as follows: I am mandated on to the Work Programme and have been consigned to A4e Ltd. as a “customer”. I received a letter from A4e dated 15th February, that informed me:

“you have been booked on INSPIRE. This will be held at A4e XXXX ofice commencing 1000 hours on 1st March 2012 and will run until 1500 hours.”

There then followed the standard warning about non-attendance affecting benefits but no further clue as to what “INSPIRE” may be. Prior to this letter there had been no discussion about INSPIRE, no information provided and no agreement to attend obtained from me (I do realise that my agreement is not required!).

I duly attended the offices of A4e and (along with 6 other “customers”) was treated to INSPIRE. This turned out to be a session on Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) run by an outside company (i.e. not A4e staff) claiming to be “Master Practitioners in NLP”.

I am sure that you can do your own research in to NLP (something I was unable to do prior to attending “INSPIRE” because of the ambush nature of the mandatory course). Suffice it to say that Neuro Linguistic Programming comprises a number of psychological techniques including hypnosis. Of course opinion is divided as to the efficacy or otherwise of NLP but there is a considerable body of informed opinion that believes that NLP is discredited and even dangerous in that it can encourage dangerous delusions. INSPIRE actually lasted around 3 and a half hours rather than the scheduled 5 and during this time I and the other candidates were effectively a captive audience. Any attempt to leave would have lead to a sanction doubt being raised for non-participation. Any attempt to query the assertions of the presenter was treated with disdain, even contempt. Doubtless any more vigorous display of independent thought would have been met with the “sanction doubt” threat.

Specifically I want you to consider the following points:

1. The nature of the course was not disclosed to me beforehand (indeed no discussion took place) and so I had no chance to research NLP or question the effectiveness (or otherwise) of INSPIRE. In effect INSPIRE was an ambush scenario with the NLP involvement not being disclosed until the session started.

2. I was “mandated” to attend under threat of loss of benefits and was effectively unable to leave the NLP session because of the same ever present threat.

3. Subsequent research has shown me that NLP is controversial. Opinion is certainly divided with some ludicrously exaggerated claims being made by some of its proponents (most of whom seem to have something to gain). Other experts claim that NLP is little more than “snake oil” being peddled as a universal panacea for the ills of the world.
I consider myself to be a tolerant person and am quite happy for anyone to believe in anything they want to provided that: a) their beliefs do not harm anyone and b) they do not force their beliefs on others. I am not sure that A4e’s compulsory NLP session meets either of these criteria. I think it is inappropriate to mandate people on to a course which advocates and uses NLP techniques without first checking with potential particpants that they want to attend – and giving them the option not to do so.

4. I am making this complaint to the JCP rather than to A4e because I fear punitive actions in retribution should I complain through A4e’s processes.

Yours sincerely,

Some references:
1. Neurologica (Dr. Steven Novella) – Neurolinguistic Programming and other Nonsense “…the assumptions of NLP, namely that our cognition, behavior and emotions can be ‘programmed’ by mimicking the more superficial aspects of those with desirable attributes (for example posture and mannerism) are wrong.
The last thirty years of research have simply shown that NLP is bunk.”

2. NLP has now been identified as one of a top 10 most discredited interventions according to a published research survey by Norcross et al (2008)
John C. Norcross, Thomas P. Hogan, Gerald P. Koocher (2008) Clinician’s Guide to Evidence-based Practices. Oxford University Press, USA

Mike Sivier · December 16, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Reblogged this on Vox Political.

arranjames · December 16, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Reblogged this on synthetic_zero.

HomerJS · December 16, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Good report, and explains why my work programme adviser talked about life being unfair the other day. As a psychology graduate myself I think it would have been good to raise the point that reward is considered to be more effective than punishment.

    Anon · April 18, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Specifically, if I recall A-Level psych classes, reward is considered a learning process beneficial as it creates motivation to complete tasks. Intermittent and varying reward is more beneficial than consistent rewards, which lead to the task being ‘weighed up’ against the reward where the task is particularly undesirable.
    Punishment, however, is demotivational. Generally, rather than having the desired effect of people associating their own behaviour with punishment, it has the effect of making people associate the punisher with the punishment. In this case where people can clearly see sanctions being applied incorrectly to many and in ways that are petty and cruel, punishment is even less effective as a tool to correct behaviour and is extremely demotivating.
    The question is whether or not people need to jump through hoops and accept punishments seemingly at the will of their advisor in order to claim a benefit paid for by national insurance. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe if you have private unemployment insurance, you’re expected to fill in a form, not attend the insurance centre for a minimum number of hours a week/work for free at the risk of your insurance being withdrawn.

calvin227 · December 16, 2013 at 4:00 pm

An excellent discourse on the NLP trick of ‘Positive affect’ or as I like to call it ‘positive affectations’ 😉

Simon Wharne · December 16, 2013 at 9:03 pm

“ Behind the glorification of “work” and the tireless talk of “blessings of work” I find the same thought as behind the praise of impersonal activity for the public benefit: the fear of everything individual. At bottom, one now feels when confronted with work-and what is invariably meant is relentless industry from early till late-that such work is the best policy, that it keeps everybody in harness and powerfully obstructs the development of reason, of covetousness, of the desire for independence. For it uses up a tremendous amount of nervous energy and takes it away from reflection, brooding, dreaming, worry, love, and hatred; it always sets a small goal before one’s eyes and permits easy and regular satisfaction. In that way a society in which the members continually work hard will have more security: and security is now adored as the supreme goddess. And now-horrors!-it is precisely the “worker” who has become dangerous. “Dangerous individuals are swarming all around.” And behind them, the danger of dangers: the individual.” Nietzsche, F. (1956/1908) Live dangerously. In W., Kaufmann (ed.), Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (pp. 100-112). New York, Meridian Books.

beastrabban · December 17, 2013 at 8:25 am

Thanks for this excellent critique and deconstruction of the psychological coercion – actually, psychological pseudo-science – behind workfare.

    jon parker · February 12, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    Have to say I agree with you on this. The worry I have about the events reported in this article is that there is some doubt as to whether any reputable ‘psychologist’ was actually involved in this draconian regime. Being a psychology graduate myself and also a fully qualified career guidance practitioner, I can tell you that there are a lot of completely unqualified charlatans out there peddling all manner of weird and wonderful ‘treatments’. The problem stems in part from weaknesses in the British Psychological Society’s own regulation system. At present, genuine psychologists – those who probably have many years of postgraduate education, training and supervised experience behind them before they are unleashed on the public – are allowed to advertise their services through the use of what are known as ‘protected titles’. An Occupational Psychologist, for example, (the kind most likely to be involved in working for the Home Office or any other government dept) can only use the label ‘occupational psychologist’ legally when they have successfully completed both a prescribed undergraduate degree in Psychology, a prescribed postgraduate masters degree (M.Sc) in Occupational Psychology and a minimum of 2 years supervised work experience in the field (though this is often much longer). In complete contrast to this, the term ‘psychologist’ is not protected at all – absolutely anybody, whether they have any qualifications in psychology or not and irrespective of any relevant experience (they could be the postman for all you know) they may or may not have, can advertise themselves using this label. The upshot of all this is that, by exploiting this loophole in the regulations, any company or individual can set themselves up as a ‘psychologist’ providing ‘psychological services’ so long as they do not use the aforementioned protected titles. Thus, a company can present itself as providing all manner of supposedly ‘psychological’ therapies, such as NLP, without having any training, experience or expertise. In fact, and this may well turn out to be the case with NLP if the references stated in this article are anything to go by, they could just as easily be the local fortune teller from a travelling fairground for all you know. One final point I would like to make, and I made this point in my response to the article yesterday (which should be in this thread somewhere), genuine occupational psychologists (those that have the years of training, experience and expertise prescribed by the British Psychological Society) are bound by a substantial volume of ethical guidelines which they are legally required to adopt. If a recognised, BPS registered psychologist is involved in behaving in this way in regards to the operation of the govt’s workfare programmes, then that individual should, at the very least, be reported for suspected misconduct to the BPS membership board.

beastrabban · December 17, 2013 at 8:48 am

Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
This is an excellent critique of the highly coercive, pseudo-psychology used to support workfare, and which is now integral to the benefits system. It’s an academic article and so uses the appropriate scientific and psychological jargon for the pseudo-psychological techniques it attacks. Nevertheless, its central message is clear. ‘Postive Affect’ – getting the claimant to adopt appropriate ‘work-friendly’ attitudes or behaviour, is confused and scientifically unsound. The ‘Inventory of Signature of Strength Tests’ used by the workfare companies on claimants has absolutely no scientific validity and wholly contravenes the ethical code of the British Psychological Society. The authors also attack the way the ‘denial of pain’, underlying this use of ‘positive affect’ by the DWP and the workfare companies and agencies is used to support the Neo-Liberal economic system. Joblessness is held to be due to the incorrect or counterproductive psychological attitude of the benefit claimant, rather than due to economic conditions and government policy. They note the way benefit claimants are being increasingly referred to psychologists, and comment on the way eligibility for benefit is also increasingly dependent on claimants showing the right attitude. It is also used to legitimate the use of workfare and sanctions. They state that the use of such psychological techniques and testing raises strong ethical questions, especially that of the lack of questioning of psychological authority. They explicitly state that the British Psychological Authority has not criticised or raised objections to the co-option of psychology in the government’s unemployment and welfare policies. This is an excellent, and very troubling point. In the Soviet Union, psychology was used to silence and incarcerate persistent critics of the regime. Soviet psychiatrists invented a form of amorphous schizophrenia, that could be used to justify locking dissidents up in mental hospitals on the ground that they were obviously insane to attack and contradict the approved Communist view of Soviet society as perfect. You can see the same attitude beginning to take shape over here regarding unemployment and benefits. In short, this is an excellent article that utter demolishes the psychological pseudo-science supporting workfare and the Neo-Liberal policies pursued by New Labour and the Coalition.

Lynne Friedli · December 17, 2013 at 9:04 am

Thank you to everyone for your comments and for sharing your experiences. We hope the debate here will contribute to the wider fight back against workfare and also help to hold psychology to account.

Alisdair Cameron · December 17, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Reblogged this on Launchpad: By and for mental health service users and commented:
Note to Government: don’t let petty considerations like morals or ethics get in the way of manipulating and coercing the very public whom you’re meant to serve.

    Lynne Friedli · December 17, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Dear Alisdair
    Thank you very much for the re-blog. And for your note to Government. Pity they aren’t currently listening…. really pleased to have the debate on Launchpad, so thanks again.

      Alisdair Cameron · December 17, 2013 at 2:39 pm

      Not a problem, Lynne: it’s dear to our hearts and much of the work we do (some of which ties with the Centre fro medical Humanities). It’s many moons since you last visited us (so many that we’re in different -better- premises, but still in Newcastle, but it’d be grand to see you again. Plus (with Angela and Charles and co, plus many others) we’re organising some public events/lectures/discussions for the 2nd/3rd quarter of next year, on MH,wellbeing, policy,language used,debates to be had etc. Interested?, .

MTJ · December 17, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Really I do not like to go off at a tangent after reading this article – I am never really sure whether or not I am on or off track with a subject but i will do my best.

My experience of A4E was not good at all in 2010 before much more heat was applied with regards to sanctions to many on JSA. I was receiving JSA until 18th January 2010, the day I applied for ESA after being informed after 4 weeks in hospital that I needed a heart transplant. I did receive ESA but at some point I was invited by ATOS to go for a medical which I assume was for a work related activity check.

I attended the medical but heard nothing from the DWP decision makers but it was near to the time when I had left heart ventrical reconstruction surgery (heart transplant decision reversed) to make an enlarged heart smaller. I was in hospital after this for an unusually long time (18 days) but I did need resucitating twice.

On arriving home and hardly unable to stand let alone walk, I opened my brown envelope and found I had “constructively” been awarded 9 points for my ESA claim. I also opened an unexpected A4E letter dated before my DWP brown envelope letter informing me that if I did not attend the A4E office at the specified date and time, my current benefit claim would be suspended (sanctioned).

Luckily for me within my pile of letters was a letter from a very kind hospital doctor and whilst the letter contained sad news from a personal health point of view, I knew the information therein could not be ignored by any DWP Decision Maker which to my mind put the whole process of ATOS medicals in doubt. More so I felt A4E to be simply a commercial organisation with all the cards in their hands for win win win by them no matter what. It is a dire place in which claimants of any benefit (except child benefit of course) are in in the UK – it is neither about health anymore nor the availability of jobs for people on JSA – it is all about squashing and demoralising people no matter what it takes.

    Lynne Friedli · December 17, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    Thank you – I don’t think your testimony is a tangent – I think it illustrates exactly your point ‘it is all about squashing and demoralising people no matter what it takes’. I’m sorry we have a system that is designed to punish people when we are ill, disabled, vulnerable and I’m sorry that you were treated like this. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond to our blog. However long it takes, this government and those who aid and abet them, will be held to account.

MHW · December 17, 2013 at 9:13 pm

Thank you for this powerful piece of work.
It is enraging that any unlucky people in our society are being subjected to indignity after indignity. It is doubly enraging that the social sciences are increasingly the means of making this possible.
As you said in your last comment “However long it takes, this government and those who aid and abet them, will be held to account.”

cognitive dissident · December 18, 2013 at 9:08 am

The messages in the course handout for the A4e (mandatory) ‘Healthy Attitudes for Living’ course take these themes a step further, intended, perhaps, to counter any residual yearnings in the ‘job seeker’ for either justice or security.

I am not being flippant – I am truly convinced that future historians will study documents like these to understand how the fascist state began in Britain. I know people throw around the word “fascist”, but I am beginning to see this as absolutely real and happening right now – I imagine in the same way that people in Italy, Spain and Germany did, watching the rolling horror of what is happening in their country without having a clue how to stop it.

This is one of the most important pieces I;ve read on this. I’d actually seen some of the blog pieces already, but when you put them together and start analysing them, a really sick, horrifying picture emerges of a policy of “psychologising” of any dissent or intelligent criticism. Thank you.

    MTJ · December 19, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Yes it is quite a frightening prospect especially if the reality embeds itself within you but in many it will not / does not and i think modern media is responsible for much of this with its anesthetic properties.

    It may seem bit jokey to say so but the film The Running Man illustrates how durable and insulated mentally people become and the states portrayed are arrived at very very slowly so as to make the end result almost unnoticeable in the passage of time.

    No matter how frightening, it is good to be aware from the perspective of personal survival.

      AtoZ · December 20, 2013 at 11:49 am

      MJT, have you heard of the term “GASLIGHTING” – a component of a larger menace called Gang Stalking?

AtoZ · December 20, 2013 at 10:49 am

Yes, the silence of the British Psychological Society is alarming.

If you look in Wikipeadia, you will find the British Psychological society “cannot campaign on issues which are seen as party political”. This is because it is a registered charity!

Alarming indeed.

    AtoZ · December 20, 2013 at 11:12 am


    With the British Psychological Society rendered a toothless tiger, what is the antidote to the toxic babble rampant in Jobcentres these days – the latter fast becoming the madhouse of the politics!

Patrick Sudlow · December 20, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Reblogged this on patricktsudlow and commented:
The present UK Government is attacking those less able to protect themselves, whilst giving tax-breaks to large corporation. We are back in Edwardian England, not the 21st century.

ghost whistler · December 22, 2013 at 8:31 pm

I think the whole sector is riddled with all this pop pyschology rubbish. Certainly that has informed my experience with Salvation Army Employment Plus even though they haven’t put me on any of these bizarre courses (in fact i’ve had barely any contact with them (other than to be bullied by an advisor who refused point blank to listen to me explain my own anxiety issues because i wasn’t accompanied by a nurse). Even so the advisors are all versed in the buzzwords and jargon of the industry. Sof ro example, when I asked what help was available I was told that it was ‘my journey’ and that they weren’t there to take it for me only ‘signpost’ me (they didn’t even do that).

If you ask for help then you are being lazy and not engaging. if you don’t ask, then guess what…

Honestly, it’s a sham.

AndrewC · January 31, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Great research & great article.
My own preoccupation is with the evidence that unemployment is deliberate – for obvious reasons this is rarely mentioned in the mainstream media. A particularly significant example of candour on this subject appeared in the Independent on 16th February 1999 in an article entitled “How wage inflation has been tamed”, which opened with an explanation of why the Bank of England had raised interest rates the previous June:

“EIGHT MONTHS ago the Bank of England was so concerned about inflationary pressures in the labour market that it hiked UK interest rates up to 7.5 per cent. Unemployment was unsustainably low, the Bank said, and would have to rise in order to keep inflation in check.”


What made this shockingly stark paragraph in an ostensibly left-leaning newspaper even more significant was that June 1998 was the month that Chancellor Gordon Brown`s New Deal was extended to adults. This scheme was introduced ostensibly to reduce unemployment, but was implemented at a time when the 90s boom had resulted in unemployment falling to a level where the ruling class felt wages were rising too fast. A Financial Times editorial, entitled “Bank calls the turn” published on September 11, 1998 blatantly called for an increase in unemployment of up to half a million:

“unemployment must now be allowed to rise – perhaps by 500,000 – to bring the economy back to a non-inflationary path. To achieve this the Bank would need to lower rates very cautiously, until it is convinced that the domestic economy and private sector wages are responding to the treatment.”

the commentator added that:

”the Bank must find the persuasive power to carry public opinion through what may prove to be a long, dark tunnel.”

The Liberal Democrat politician and economist Chris Huhne, writing in the Independent in 1993 (How to put the nation back to work – 21 February 1993) outlined the particular problem of long-term unemployment as he saw it:

“A new initiative will be necessary now that long-term unemployment is rising again. Employers are more reluctant to hire people who have been out of work for a long time, and they in turn become demoralised. Like unsold flowers, they are moved further back in the florist’s shop, each time reducing their chances of sale. They fail to compete with those in work, so that there is a rise in the amount of unemployment needed to contain wages.”
For Huhne it was the reduced employability of the long-term unemployed that made them a less attractive commodity in the labour market. Huhne cited the estimates of “leading labour market specialists” Richard Layard and Stephen Nickell who claimed that if unemployment was cut to below “some 8 per cent” then “wage pressures would begin to rise. Wages would steadily outstrip the potential growth of the economy, resulting in accelerating prices”.

The way to get unemployment below this level in Huhne`s eyes was to be found in Sweden’s active labour market policy where:

“there are incentives to employers who hire the long-term jobless, and the training genuinely prepares the unemployed for useful jobs”

So the solution was to spend tax-payers` money on in-work subsidies for employers, and to spend yet more money to train both those who would get work and those whose unemployment was necessary to “contain wages”.

Earlier in the article Huhne had acknowledged that the unemployed do not choose their fate:

“Unemployment is overwhelmingly involuntary. People do not choose redundancy. The idea that high benefit levels have encouraged the work-shy is even more absurd today than it was in 1979. The latest calculations by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that the number of people who could expect to get benefit worth 70 per cent or more of their previous income if they became unemployed has fallen from 1,870,000 in 1985 to 425,000 in 1991/2.”

More topically we have the current debate over the Bank of England`s 7% unemployment threshold. Here`s an extract from the bank`s August Inflation Report (see page 28 under the heading “The equilibrium unemployment rate is affected by a range of factors that change over time”) where it says:

“The longer that people are out of work, the more their skills will deteriorate and as a result, the probability of them finding a job decreases — those who have been unemployed for over a year are, on average, around a third as likely to find work as the short-term unemployed. That is likely to mean that they will exert less downward pressure on wages and so the equilibrium unemployment rate in the medium term will remain elevated.”

The “equilibrium unemployment rate” is the rate of unemployment deemed necessary to control inflation in the bank`s estimation.

At a time when the unemployed are being demonised like never before it is the duty of every decent person to expose this policy. Politically, the deliberate use of unemployment is impossible to defend while simultaneously stigmatising the jobless. The failure (in my opinion) of the Left to explain what`s going on has meant that what should be a vulnerability for the Right – namely the phenomenon of persistent mass unemployment (even during a boom) – has in fact been a vulnerability for the Left.

More evidence of the intent of the ruling class to maintain “sufficient” (i.e.mass!) unemployment can be read here:

nurses mandatory training · October 30, 2014 at 6:00 am

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james · February 11, 2015 at 11:20 am

this government and the way the nhs treats unemployed people is a disgrace. i get no support from my gp or a psychologist i saw – they don’t want to know about workfare or the problems of being sanctioned. to make matters worse, whenever i am physically ill it is like a battle to get any help. have suffered with a condition for a long time as they don’t want to know, if you don’t work and you’re depressed you ‘just have too much time on your hands to sit and think about things’. what a joke

From Canada · February 11, 2015 at 12:22 pm

These workshops too should be voluntary and not tied to basic needs. If they were just about help with resumes or computer skills, I’d have no objection. However, in one particularly upsetting experience, the group was asked how they prioritize their time. Would you take your sick child to emergency or party? Just one of many demoralizing experiences with job search contractors.

To be told to “suck it up” when you have just lost your job, even a bad one is negating one’s feelings. It felt like a type of brainwashing and to be honest, I was frightened.

If it were voluntary, at least when you feel that something is unwanted and coercive, you can walk out. And by walking out, only job seeking agencies that are effective and truly helpful will survive.

I can’t believe that this system has gone unchecked. The irony is that WORKFARE probably costs more to run than it is to provide basic needs to citizens if circumstances have aligned in such a way that they need to ask.

I would always take a job if I was qualified, able to do it, able to get to it and could find it.

jon parker · February 11, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Most concerned with the events reported in this article. In particular, I am concerned with the point made about half way in which stated that a particular measure failed almost every single ethical guideline laid down by the British Psychological Society. This is an extremely concerning matter. As a Psychology graduate myself and someone who has recently considered professional training in Occupational/Organisational Psychology – who supply, I presume, the psychologists to the Home Office and DWP refered to in the article – I am acutely aware of the many and varied ethical guidelines which all professional psychologists working in the UK are legally bound to. If such psychologists, working on behalf of government agencies such as the DWP and/or Home Office, are engaging in this unethical and unprofessional behaviour, they should be immediately reported to the appropriate authorities (the British Psychological Society in the first instance) and formally disciplined for a breach of their ethical code. My personal view on this is that, as a practising psychologist, if I was called upon by a government department I was providing a service to to engage in this behaviour I would refuse and, furthermore, terminate any contract of service existing with that department. Furthermore, until such time as the DWP and Home Office stop delivering programmes as controversial as the current Welfare to Work programmes, I would lobby my fellow psychologist professionals, via the British Psychological Society, and campaign to terminate any further work with such government departments on ethical grounds.

    Lynne Friedli · May 17, 2015 at 5:35 pm

    Hi Jon

    thanks for your comments; I’ve come back to them because myself and Robert Stearn are about to publish a more detailed paper in BMJ Critical Medical Humanities and we are specifically calling, as you suggest, on the BPS to respond to the misuse of psychology in workfare. If you’re interested in knowing more, feel free to email me

Noria Kam · February 14, 2015 at 8:54 pm

I am on the work programme , having lost my small business in the recession. I made a mistake of over volunteering believing it would lead to a job didn’t and after six months of signing on and volunteering I found myself on the work programme. We had to undertake role play etc in order to supposedly help us on our way back to work, some of it helped because employers today do use this kind of set up to screen future employees, however I found it painful to witness a lot of people who found the whole procedure intimidating and humiliating, where we had to stand up and tell the group (basically a bunch of strangers of a bout 20 people or so) what kind of job we were looking for I took a paracetamal to numb my panic, and when a man stood up to talk and started to get all flustered and tongue tied their was a titter of laughter from the room. I could not believe that this kind of naïve and unprofessional situation had anything other than getting people of benefits via cruel humiliation, as one of their weapons. Last week I found a job through the work programme, it is zero hours and on a 5 week probation at a call centre where targets are used
as a means of weeding for those who will stay on and those that will not be furtherly employed. When I went to Maximus 5E, the so called advisor said now that you’ve got a job I am going to ring Stratford(DWP) where you will tell them you are signing off, knowing that this behaviour breached my rights..I said to her after you ring Stratford are you going to speak on my behalf, she said no you are going to tell them that you are now signing off, I told her that I didn’t want to sign off as I wasn’t sure about the job, being not a very secure one and also being target based I said that I wanted to see how I fared before I chose to sign off , but she started dialling inside the work programme building its as if normal laws do not aply these people can do what they want with the so called customers, whilst she was dialling I said just a second I need to get something and walked out of the room and signed myself out of the building. I am going to see citizens advice because I cannot believe that in 2015 a not too intelligent person can believe that she has the right to tell me to sign off especially when I know I have my credit card to pay and a gas and electric bill of over £450. On Friday thank God my money was deposited in my account because I didn’t listen to her and knew that she was over stepping herself legally. I am older than the under 24s who I see at the work programme a lot of them don’t know their rights nor know how to present themselves, all I have seen is humiliation, bullying some psychological damage by those who are not qualified to act or represent the law have an arbitrary knowledge of psychology and people skills, I could not believe this was happening in England at this present time.

    jon parker · March 1, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    Noria, you’re quite right to be concerned about the disgraceful treatment you have received. Having gone into battle with the DWP myself over sanctions (I eventually, after almost 2 years, won! – more than 4 sanctions removed from my record and a full reimbursement of lost JSA benefit), I can tell you that, having looked in some detail at the relevant DWP regulations, the only people authorised to instruct you to close down a claim are employees of the DWP itself (eg job centre staff). No external agency or its employees are allowed to do this – the most any Work Programme provider can do is inform DWP of a claimant’s non-compliance with the regime with a view to issuing sanctions. But it is only DWP itself which has the power to do this once it receives the allegation of non-compliance from the Work Programme provider. And even this process is not entirely clear or transparent. From what you’ve said it seems like the Work Programme provider was instructing you to close down your JSA claim – this is completely outside of their authority! Even when DWP receives notification of non-compliance by a claimant which is likely to lead to the issue of sanctions, such action is not the same as closing a claim down. Its one of the more obtuse and confusing aspects of the JSA regulations that once sanctioned, your claim is still, strictly speaking, active – ie once the period of sanction has finished, your claim will still be in operation and you will go back to receiving your JSA. So issuing a sanction – although it results in the temporary loss of benefit to a claimant – does not mean the claim has been closed down. The most any member of DWP can do is, if asked, to advise a claimant that, in circumstances such as yours, it might be a good idea to stop claiming. But they cannot make you stop claiming – that is a decision which you, and only you, can make. And equally, any external provider of job centre services, such as the Work Programme provider, is certainly not authorised, under any circumstances, to pressure claimants to stop claiming. When you look at the documentation which all Work Programme providers are issued with when they start delivering a programme on behalf of DWP, (and these are freely accessible over the internet), it is clear that the process is for the Work Programme provider to notify DWP when an act of claimant non-compliance has occurred. The Work Programme provider’s authority ceases at this point – it has no power to intervene any further in the ‘disciplining’ of a claimant. So, it seems from what you’ve said that this particular provider is seriously exceeding its authority by taking this action and needs to be reported to DWP and any other relevant authorities. Since it is also a private company, I would advise using the company’s own internal complaint procedures to lodge a formal complaint about staff conduct. I did this with A4E some years ago.

    Hope all this helps.

Noria Kam · February 14, 2015 at 8:59 pm

The work programme.

juliette · June 10, 2015 at 12:43 pm

I only found this article today but would have liked to have found it sooner. Am I right in thinking that the emphasis of he document is on people without diagnosed conditions, who are being subjected to these practices through workfare programs. Or is this common practice for metal health sufferers unlucky enough to score insufficient points at a WCA to be reprogrammed by the job centre.

I am very interested in your points on the conspiracy of optimism and the denial of pain that is part and parcel of this half baked thinking. But where on earth is the outrage of the BPS in all this, surely their first priority is to the well being of anyone they deal with, regardless of political pressure.

    jon parker · June 11, 2015 at 11:52 am

    You’re quite right about the BPS. They have a long list of ethical guidelines which all professional psychologists are required to observe in their working practice. And I would think that the practice of routinely subjecting innocent benefit claimants to even brief forms of mental health interventions (eg Brief CBT) when there is no previous diagnosis of any kind of mental health problem most definitely falls foul of those regulations.

    The problem, however, may be in the way those regulations are enforced. The impression I have of the BPS’s regulatory framework is that it works very much on a retrospective instead of proactive basis – if a client or member of the public complains to them about treatment they have received from a BPS registered psychologist the BPS will investigate. This process, however, depends on the BPS being notified of a complaint after the fact.

    The other issue may be to do with exactly who the ‘experts’ DWP say they are using to deliver these services actually are. One of the problems with this whole issue is the notion of ‘Protected Title’ which is a legal term. In essence, the problem arises out of the exact terminology which any individual or company describing themselves as a ‘psychologist’ or offering ‘psychological services’ uses in their advertising. The sorts of terms which we commonly associate with professional psychologists – eg clinical psychologist, educational psychologist, occupational psychologist – are legally known as Protected Titles. This means that, in order to somebody to use them, they have to subscribe to a long list of specific conditions. Such professional psychologists typically have to have studied their profession for several years (eg 3 year undergraduate degree in Psychology + a postgraduate specialist qualification, typically a 3 year doctorate, in their chose field) and also have notched up several years of supervised professional experience in the field to be able to call themselves professional psychologists. The term ‘psychologist’, on the other hand, has no such conditions attached. This is not a protected title and as such can be used from anybody or any company from any walk of life with no guarantee that they have ever studied psychology or have any specialist expertise to offer. Thus, your postman could describe themselves as a ‘psychologist’ with no previous expertise to offer while a ‘clinical psychologist’ will have notched up the best part of ten years study, specialist training and supervised experience before they can get within a mile of any patient. Equally, any company can set itself up as offering ‘psychological services’ without having any particular expertise to offer.

    Herein lies the problem. It seems bizarre to me that any genuine professional psychologist would engage in the practices described in the article because this would clearly infringe upon the high ethical standards which all BPS members are required to observe. But how do we know that DWP are using such genuine professional psychologists to deliver this service? As I mentioned above, any company can set itself up to deliver ‘psychological services’ without fear of reprisal because this term is not a protected title.

Liz Douglas · July 26, 2017 at 6:21 pm

Is it possible to share this article or must I request permission from somewhere?
Many thanks

    mdiclhumanities · August 23, 2017 at 7:51 pm

    You can share the article, however we do request that you cite this blog post in sharing it.
    Hope that helps!

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