Yoga for stress, therapy for bosses? Wellbeing programs miss the mark

Shifting the focus from individual 'fix-it' solutions to addressing systemic issues can truly improve mental wellbeing at work, writes UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel

This will sound a bit strange coming from someone with a PhD in organisational psychology, but perhaps we have gone a bit too far in the psychologisation of work.

What do I mean by the psychologisation of work? This is the tendency to put a psychiatric label on the myriad people problems we might experience in the workplace. I almost qualified these problems as 'abnormal', but that would be psychologising too, because a lot of inconvenient encounters at work are not ‘abnormal’ but simply part of the human condition.

In today’s work lingo, a nasty boss is no longer a hard taskmaster; no, he or she is a psychopath who gaslights. Your colleague is not a braggart, but a narcissist. There is no long-standing conflict between colleagues; no, the workplace is toxic. What are you saying? That your insecurely attached manager is traumatising you with their passive-aggressive emails and you are on the verge of burnout?

UNSW Business School's Professor Frederik Anseel.jpg
UNSW Business School's Frederik Anseel says it is easier for organisations to organise yoga sessions than to acknowledge that mental problems at work may be caused by the underlying work structures themselves. Photo: supplied

The psychologising of the workplace manifests itself in the over-analysis of human dynamics in psychological terms, whereby everyday problems seem to have a deeper explanation: the other person seems delusional and must be suffering from a psychiatric disorder.

Man is sometimes a wolf to his fellow man. That may be, at times, unpleasant and painful. And although we do not realise it, we ourselves are perhaps just as often a wolf to the other. But the daily tragedy of working life does not always have to be wrapped in psychological categories.

In doing so, we not only do injustice to our colleagues who may sometimes be clumsy and uncouth but who do not mean us any harm. It also prevents us from taking real mental problems seriously and giving them the attention and treatment they need. People who are really dealing with depression, severe burnout or a narcissistic partner have other concerns than our everyday neuroses. Look, I’m using the word ‘neuroses’ again. Because I confess: I am guilty myself of psychologising work. Didn't I write those columns about psychological safety and toxic leadership?

Read more: How to manage psychosocial hazards in the workplace

Wellbeing programs, stress coaches and meditation apps

The second problem with psychologisation follows on from the first. If we all suffer psychologically from the abnormalities of others, then we all need therapy; some to ease the pain, others to stop causing pain. This is the flourishing domain of 'wellbeing programs' – especially since the pandemic, since money can be made with wellness programs.

These wellness programs also draw from the psychology repertoire: resilience training, stress coaches, meditation apps, mindfulness programs. Sometimes any deep psychological analysis is no longer necessary, as long as it is fun: who hasn't signed up for a workshop on fitness, healthy eating, yoga or pilates?

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Most psychological problems at work are caused by a number of factors – including the way work is organised, and how jobs and careers are designed. Photo: Adobe Stock

I don’t have a problem with that per se; many people report that they benefit from it and that such support programs are useful. But we must realise that all these wellbeing programs are a band-aid. It is much easier for an organisation to organise yoga sessions than to acknowledge that mental problems at work may be caused by the underlying work structures themselves.

A recent study by Oxford colleague William Fleming showed this again: programs aimed at the individual do not address organisational structural problems and do little to improve matters.

They are a colourful band-aid on the wound, a wound that can be brutally reopened the next day. Most psychological problems at work are caused by the way work is organised, how jobs and careers are designed, how workloads and work demands are determined, how people are assessed and valued, how work-life balance is not sustainable and how out-of-control bureaucracy undermines productivity. And I may be missing a few more. 

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Most wellness programs place the responsibility for mental health on the individual: “We make you resilient to deal with the problems of work.” They rarely ask in-depth questions about where these mental problems come from. Wellness programs ease the pain, but do not solve the problems. The psychologisation of work must also recognise this basic principle: structural factors in the work environment determine wellbeing.

Frederik Anseel is Dean and Professor of Management at UNSW Business School. His research focuses on the motivational micro-foundations of how people contribute to organisational success. For more information, please contact Prof. Anseel directly. A version of this post was first published in De Tijd.


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