Don’t get me wrong, soaking in a bath engulfed by candles and relaxing music is bliss, but is it really going to fix a 50+ hour work week? And I’m not denying that being out in nature and spending time with loved ones is beneficial for mental health, it’s just much more difficult to find the opportunity when working every hour god sends for minimum wage. And we all know sleep is important, but the right amount at the right time is just not possible if you’re working shifts or juggling work, family and study. I’m not devaluing the role of self-care in personal wellbeing, I think it can be a very helpful tool for holistic health. What I find concerning, however, is when companies advocate for self-care in order to avoid taking responsibility for how their treatment of workers affects mental health and wellbeing. In reality, the root cause of a burnout is being overworked under stressful conditions, and even the most robust self-care routine will not address those issues, it will only provide ways of surviving each day given the circumstances. Instead of seeking individualised methods of coping with and accepting problems that stem from oppression and inequality, we should be collectively organising in solidarity with other working class people to overthrow these unfair systems altogether.
For my job as a support worker in the disabilities sector, I was required to complete some online training about developing personal resilience. The aim of this exercise was to help me develop personal strategies to de-stress in order to reduce likelihood of a burn out. It was even so explicit as to say that this is important so the worker will take less sick days and consequently alleviate stress and strain put on co-workers when sick days are taken. As an employee in an industry well known for its long working hours, unsociable shifts, stressful and potentially violent working environment, I would have preferred an exercise that informed me of my rights, and support systems I was able to reach out to after a stressful event at work. But in reality, I felt the responsibility of staying physically and emotionally healthy not only removed entirely from working conditions but the onus on me to undertake in my already limited free time.
The above is an example of the current corporate co-optation of self-care. When an employer puts the responsibility on their workers to deal with work-related stress, while at the same time ignoring the part they play in its creation, they are perpetuating worker exploitation. Advocating self-care is an easy out for bosses, it makes them appear like an employer who cares about workforce wellbeing, but costs them no time, money, or operational changes to the way they run things at work. I don’t believe it’s acceptable to say “your job is stressful… so either learn how to cope with it or find a new one”. No, employers should not be able to get out of taking care of their workers that easily. But with the eroding of union power and undermining of collective bargaining through law changes that happened so aggressively during the neoliberal era, this precarious and stressful way of work and life is now a reality for many of us.
Neoliberalism has not only been successful in individualising mental health and wellbeing concerns, it has of course found a way to profit from them too. Just think of all the proposed methods of ‘self-care’ out there that require you buy a good or service, whether that be hot yoga classes or a bath bomb. Then think of the ones that require some sort of performance aspect, for instance posting your #blissedout moment or #selfcare routine to thousands of followers so that they too can believe that happiness and health can be purchased in the form of a $10 detox smoothie. And so it happens that precarious coping strategies are marketed to the rest of the population and serve as a distraction away from the real issues – work, inequality, and capitalism in general – that are causing our distress.
That’s right, it’s not the boss, upper management, or even the employer that is necessarily evil, but simply confined by the capitalist system that we are all currently forced to operate under. Capitalism is the evil thing here, but somehow the system convinces you that the shitty feelings you have are your fault. This individual blame game is what Laurie Penny argues as the first way that self-care hinders social change. The second, she says, is it distracts you from pursuing collective ways of changing the systems of injustice and oppression that are ruining us. She aptly puts that “the lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.”
So what exactly is the responsibility that employers are effectively evading when they advocate for self-care? Well let’s look at contracts for starters. Most low-paid work is not supported by robust permanent contract, let alone a collective agreement, meaning that many working class individuals are now making up a new kind of class called the ‘precariat’. The precariat are workers that rely on precarious, short-term contracts or casual employment, often having to line up future work or work multiple jobs to make ends meet. If prolonged, this state creates an inability to plan or goal set in life decisions, leading to growing uncertainty and stress in the lives of the precariat.
Acknowledging that work contracts (or lack thereof) have a significant impact on employee wellbeing, this is somewhere employers could put their resources into if they actually cared about improving mental health (read: reducing sick days) in the workplace. Other factors include paying the living wage, approving leave often and in a time efficient manner, maybe even allowing more leave per year than the legally required minimum, or providing benefits like health insurance and access to counselling. If you already have some or all of these things in your workplace then that’s awesome, but unfortunately you are one of the lucky few.
An important myth to discount at this point is one supported by a neoliberal ideology of upward mobility – that the most precarious and low-paying jobs in our society serve only as stepping stones onto more secure and better paying employment once a worker has more experience and qualifications. This would assume that most people occupying the most precarious job roles are teenagers with a Saturday job for pocket money, a student part-time, or an arts graduate on the (long and gruelling) career-hunt. Firstly, this is still not an excuse to treat your employees like crap, but also absolutely not true. Many working class people occupy low-paid roles with minimal job progression for many years of their working life, and whether this be by choice or not, they deserve the benefits, support systems and decent conditions that allow people to live with dignity.
If we expand the notion of self-care to fight injustice collectively, then this starts to look like a whole lot more than an individualised wellness package with a hefty price tag. Instead it could involve joining your union, and getting involved in local solidarity projects. Or perhaps most importantly connecting with whānau, friends and comrades that you can turn to for support when you need it. It can also be the small victories like getting out of bed, making a sandwich, and paying your power bill on time. Give yourself credit for surviving in this hostile world, cos that’s a huge achievement in itself. And if after all that you still have a little left in you to fight, then I’ll see you in the streets!
Sources and further reading/listening
By Mark Fisher
This book (which can be found online as a PDF) uses mental health as one of the touch stones to analyse why capitalism is inherently dysfunctional yet manages to present itself as the only realistic economic system in the world today. What he calls the “privitisation of stress” (21) effectively ignores a wider social cause.
By Chris Maisano
“The problems of our time will be solved by our collective capacity to change the world, not self-therapy.”
By David Smail
An internet publication that gets to the same problem from his own angle when talking about psychotherapy as a “business” ideology that seeks to transform individual wellbeing through inner change, once again disregarding social and economic factors that come into play.
A podcast by Vegan Vanguard