Psycho-compulsion in Dutch workfare

smiley mock graffiti (wwwuppertal flickr)

I wrote an opinion article for the blog Sargasso in response to a recent documentary on the workfare programme in Rotterdam, the article (in Dutch) can be read here: De tegenprestatie en de psychodwang van de social dienst. Below you can read it in English.

De documentary (watch it here) shows us how case managers at Social Services engage with their ‘clients’. We see a worker trying to encourage an unemployed man: ‘From now on we’re going to think in solutions, not in problems’, she says, and: ‘Let’s keep the problem with ourselves.’ When she later gets up to print the so-called agreements form she says, making enthusiastic arm movements, ‘Hundred per cent, right?’.

Another worker suggest that work experience is not required for doing production work and delivering mail, and says – fists swinging – to the unemployed man sitting opposite of him: ‘You’ve got to show you have guts!’ A 60-year-old man tries to foster compassion, it’s a ‘difficult age’ for finding a job. Yes, the worker answers, ‘but we can’t give up.’ Later in the documentary we hear a worker say that it’s important to look to the future, because ‘What do you want to focus on, something you can’t change, or something you can change?’


Earlier this year, Lynn Friedli and Robert Stearn published an article about positive affect as coercive strategy in British workfare programmes. They observe that it has become common to use psychological interventions to monitor and activate unemployed people. The mental qualities that are so well-known in positive psychology and the wellbeing industry – confidence, optimism, self-efficacy, aspiration – are imposed through mandatory trainings and job preparation, they write. This is not about trying to be compassionate with the ‘clients’, but about forcing people into a trajectory through using positive psychology, hence ‘psycho-compulsion’. In this way, people’s mental state can be used to punish them for not complying and imposing benefit sanctions (in the Netherlands: nog paying 30 to 100 per cent of benefits for one or more months).

We see plenty of illustrations of how this works in the documentary on the Rotterdam Social Services. In addition to the interactions I just described, we see people at what looks like a job interview training where the trainer tells them that ‘clothes determine how you feel’ and that you need to ‘claim your space.’

Psycho-compulsion also seems to play a role in the questionnaire that people have to fill out, in which they are asked to respond to statements such as ‘I am often lazy’, ‘I have been so irritable that I scolded or hit people’, ‘Nothing could make me enthusiastic’ and ‘I had the feeling that my life had no purpose.’ The questionnaire seems similar to a policy plan that was announced in the UK, about which Friedli and Stearn write, that assesses whether people who are applying for benefits are reluctant to work combined with ‘attitude profiling’ to assess whether they are ‘bewildered, despondent or determined’.


The question that rises is how the answers to such statements are used. It is known that the loss of a job is a very stressful event and that longterm unemployment often results in loneliness and depression. I doubt, however, that the assessment is used to offer people adequate psychological care, or that the peptalk of the workers is meant to genuinely support people. In line with what Friedli and Stearn observe, it seems these interventions are meant to shift attention away from wider trends and social problems and instead blame individuals for their unemployment.

In this setting, psychology (and ‘therapy discourse’ more generally) coproduces and validates the core mythologies of neoliberalism, while simultaneously undermining and eroding alternative discourses—of solidarity, collectivity and interdependence (F & S, page 42).


A second problem of the psychological framing of unemployment is that it is easy to ignore the social circumstances that play a big role in whether people have jobs or not. Focusing on the individual and their mental state may stimulate people who do have jobs to claim that they succeeded because they were motivated, and to forget the role of luck or their fortunate start position (education, social networks, financial capital to start that company). The opportunities for finding and keeping a job are not equally divided.

Of course some people are more motivated than others. The question is what the relationship is between someone’s motivation, or mental state more generally, and their work situation. Is it possible that higher educated people are more optimistic about the odds of finding a job and thus more motivated? If one’s opportunities are related to one’s educational level and work experience, are some unemployed people who are less motivated not just being realistic? To what extent are differences in motivation, optimism, confidence and aspiration in fact manifestations of class differences, as Friedli and Stearn also suggest?

Moral grounds

There is according to Friedli and Stearn no evidence that psycho-compulsion is effective in getting people to work. But effectiveness is not the only question here. On a Dutch blog, Chris van der Meulen writes about workfare: ‘Whether it works is important of course, but you could get the impression, wrongly so, that this is just a technical issue.’ We should also talk about the moral grounds for workfare – and for using psychological interventions, I would like to add.

Is it fair to blame individuals for their unemployment if we know that unemployment is related to structural macro-level developemnts and political decisions? There is in addition a risk that focusing on the mental state of unemployed people silences them, because their protest and analyses of social problems are no longer being taken seriously. And is it fair to assess people, and punish them by taking away their rights to state support, based on optimism or motivation, in a society in which the grounds for optimism – health, education, capacities, class – are unequally divided?

photo by wwwuppertal on Flickr (cc)

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