Knowing Your Place Saving Face

The Stresses of Work

(c) marsmet549

The workplace provides a fertile space for the relational world to weave its magic/unleash its misery. The set of relational senses – honour, respect, pride, envy, shame, humiliation, acceptance, belonging (some of the usual suspects) have a field day with the combination of close relationships, institutional hierarchy and the inevitable emphasis on relative status. As a result, the senses treat the work environment as their own intersubjective plaything, the ideal environment within which to ratchet up anxieties over acknowledgement, recognition and self-worth. No wonder then that so many workers dread Mondays, the weekends for many providing only temporary relief. This is even more the case now, where transformations in employment structures and shifts in divisions of labour have created a work culture in which mental health issues are becoming more prominent.

An excellent exploration of this environment is provided by Elin Thunman in her paper ‘Burnout as a social pathology of self-realization’ (part of the special edition mentioned in The Invisible Man, Part 3). Thunman explores the increasing prevalence of Burnout, i.e, ‘work-related mental fatigue’ via Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition, using in-depth interviews with individuals on long-term sick-leave with various mental fatigue diagnoses. She argues that workers’ desire to be acknowledged for their contributions, skills and knowledge in the pressurised contexts of changing workplaces and practices (reorganisation, downsizing), has helped to increase the level of burnout among employees. Thunman does a good job of describing the route to burnout among her case studies:

Nadia did her utmost to handle the increased and new demands at the editorial office and ‘fix everything for everyone’. Like Lars, she felt that her engagement turned her into a ‘superhuman woman’. After several years of constant reorganizations and downsizing, which the staff had little influence upon, her fatigue symptoms began to appear. Nadia responded with intensified efforts: ‘The more jaded and exhausted I became, the more I pushed myself’. Otherwise she sensed that ‘both the working world and the private world had broken down’. As I understand it, her self-esteem had become so intertwined with fixing everything for everyone at work. To stop doing this jeopardized her whole identity (as an engaged person). Nadia did not understand why she, ‘who was so engaged, did not feel happier, healthier, and more right’.

Nadia’s experience was no different from the other participants in Thunman’s study, all falling into the ‘honey trap’ of desiring more and more acknowledgement in a situation where the pickings were decidedly slim:

All respondents follow the same pattern. They got in a vicious spiral of feeling worthless and fatigued, which they tried to snap out of by working even harder. But as their health sagged, it became even more difficult to manage the working conditions in accordance with their values, and self-esteem sank even more. This process lasted from a few months to a couple of years.

Increased feelings of ‘emptiness and low self-esteem’ speak to a hollow world of social invisibility, a losing battle being fought with the modern world of employment. It may be the case that the dream of self-worth through work, packaged up in some form of professional identity, is finally in its death throes (well how long can such an illusion survive in an age of dwindling opportunities, redundancies and frozen pay?). At the same time, it should be noted that workplaces do not manufacture these relational senses; all workplaces do is magnify their importance (just like school). Admittedly they are very good at magnification, but so much of the stresses of work are not really about work at all.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.