If your workplace suggests you do yoga at lunchtime to manage stress, tell your bosses to stick those classes up their floppy pants.
Mindfulness meditation? Just another way to get you to keep your feelings to yourself, to individualise the issues we all feel at work.
Positivity? That’s supposed to make us feel better about relentless pressure. Be cheerful and optimistic about your work and your life, despite your employer demanding more, demanding better. Do it all with a smile on your face.
Danish psychology researcher Svend Brinkmann told the ABC last week that it’s time to reject self-improvement ideology, refuse the cult of positive thinking and stand firm.
“We are only allowed to be positive, we are only allowed to be happy and anything that threatens these states of mind is considered wrong,” he says.
And isn’t that just the perfect solution for our employers. How convenient it must be to put workers under unreasonable stress and then blame it all on workers when the workplace goes bad. I’d argue positivity and mindfulness are just ways to get us to comply with the increased pressures of capitalism. Yoga? Your boss certainly hopes it will help you be more flexible.
Australian workers – particularly women – are caught in a squeeze. Many more of us than ever before are in insecure work – and underemployment is at an all time high. Many of us in full-time paid employment are working ridiculously long hours and working unpaid overtime. Fewer of us entitled to annual leave actually take our annual entitlement.
You might not know if you can pay the rent week to week. But hey, take a few deep breaths, folks, and put it out of your mind. After all, this stress is of your own making, not the boss’s. It is your individual responsibility to be a better worker.
We are jammed between a marginal, precarious existence or employment in a more traditional sense, where employers know exactly how lucky employees are to have work like that.
“And they are going to work them as much as they possibly can to get their money’s worth,” says Jim Stanford, the director of the Centre for Future Work. “It comes with a precarious employment market.”
Brinkmann has good advice for those of us who want some reality in our lives and that includes learning to say no. But my favourite of his seven tips for moving forward includes learning to focus on the negatives in your life.
More than ever, that’s particularly important in our workplaces. There is little point in going to yoga or Pilates. Those classes don’t fix the intrinsic problems in your workplace and put all the responsibility on you, the individual. Overwork and underresourcing will never be cured by you doing Downward Dog – it will only ever be fixed by you doing Upward Managing and doing it with others in your workplace who feel similarly. Collective action works and I don’t mean chanting in the meditation room.
I had a long chat with RMIT’s Sara Charlesworth, professor and deputy head of the School of Management. She’s a longtime researcher in employment and an executive member of the Centre for People, Organisation and Work in the College of Business. She was also one of Australia’s very first researchers into insecure employment in 2012 was part of an inquiry.
And she remembers clearly a young woman lawyer she interviewed for some research around billable hours. The lawyer was highly stressed but insisted that the only way forward was for everyone who was similarly stressed to take up yoga and mindfulness meditation.
Charlesworth was astonished.
“The solution for insecure work or very stressful work is not mindfulness. It’s having more secure work and protecting workers whatever their employment is.
“If you are wondering what to do at lunchtime and you want to do yoga, well and good, but it should never be seen as a way of fixing the problem of poor quality.
“What we need is ‘doable hours’.”
You are not the problem and you being endlessly cheerful and upbeat will never fix the problem.
It’s the overwork, the stress, the precarity. It’s not your individual responsibility to fix that in a work environment, even though it spills out into your home environment. It’s the responsibility of employers – and the only action we should ever take is collective, not individual.
Jenna Price is a Fairfax Media columnist and an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney.