The unbearable weight of work

Taking our cue from these ideas, we can now flesh out how alienation is articulated in our research materials. In both the interviews and the therapeutic events Suvi attended during her fieldwork, she heard many stories of neoliberal work life causing exhaustion, depression and stress. Many spoke of having felt ‘completely exhausted’, ‘totally broken’ and ‘really on the bottom’. Most often, such experiences of psychic and physical overload were referred to as ‘burnout’. Nearly half of the research participants had had personal experiences of burnout, and almost all the professional therapists identified burnout as a crucial reason why clients come to see them. As Rosa (2015b: 296) suggests, burnout can be seen as ‘an extreme form of alienation' in which ‘the world faces the subject in a rigid, harsh, cold and silent form’. Burnout generally has a distinctively gendered profile, particularly affecting women and female-dominated sectors of the labour market (Rikala, 2013).

Many of our research participants problematised the valorisation of waged work as a measure of human worth, which makes losing a job ever more threatening and makes those out of work feel worthless. The vocabularies through which they talked about working life were often quite violent. For example, Nora, who had been in a supervisory position in a large company before embarking on a caréelas an alternative therapist, saw in her therapy practice how people were living ‘on a razor blade’ with a ‘constant threat of being made redundant’ and that many were ‘on a final burnout edge’. Pia, a politically active practitioner of meditation, echoed this in lamenting how people were forced to ‘push forward at full speed and just deliver, deliver, deliver’; while Elina, a life coach in her forties, described how people were ‘whipped’ to make profit for companies. Tom, leading a firm offering self-improvement classes, thought that heightened demands in the workplace had resulted in growing numbers of burnouts so that people had to be regularly ‘rebooted’. Maria, an alternative therapist in her forties, contemplated this as follows:

Work life keeps spinning around quicker and quicker, and people are just catapulted from it, or they choose to leave the cogwheel voluntarily because they cannot take it anymore ... Work life has become quite wretched in the sense that those who have work are just drudging so hard, and the demands are getting harder and harder all the time, you need to know and handle thousands of things, all of that at the same time. It’s really stressful. And those who don’t have work are stressed as well.

Similar mechanical metaphors recurred in the interviews, conveying an image of people being caught up in a Weberian ‘iron cage’ (Weber, 1958), or as spinning in a giant machine that also threatens to turn them into a machine, like a computer in need of ‘rebooting’. There was a sense of constant forced movement: one must be on the move, out and about, running and spinning at the mercy of the machine, unable to control or influence it.

The experience of alienation that emerges from these accounts was articulated through two tropes. The first was Toss of the self, which conveys a sense of losing touch with oneself and being estranged and disconnected from one's body. This was referred to, for example, as ‘going blind’ at work, not ‘seeing’ how tired one was and ‘losing touch with who I am’. Many talked about burnout as something that ‘crept in" slowly and unnoticed, making one neglect oneself. Sometimes it crept in through a heightened passion for and commitment to work, á la ‘new spirit of capitalism’. This was the case for Salli, a thirty-something mother of a small baby who had trained as an angel therapist after experiencing serious burnout in her previous job as a youth worker, which she described as her vocation. She described herself as a workaholic whose work gradually took over everything in her life. As for many others, burnout appeared for her as a ‘rupture’:

My physical condition collapsed, I was ill all the time and was just crying at home. Work did not give any satisfaction anymore. And I somehow realised that my relationship with work is not healthy, that I want something else in my life than just work. I want peace, I want to feel calmer and more balanced,

I want to laugh and not cry all the time. [...] I liked my work enormously, I did it for a longtime. [...] but at the expense of myself. [...] Well, when your body collapses, you are forced to stop and think.

Like Salli, many research participants problematised the imperative of constant performance as ‘sick’, not allowing them to "stop, rest and recuperate’. They also viewed this imperative as being amplified by a specific Finnish work ethic idealising hard work and self-sacrifice as a source of moral reward (Kortteinen, 1991; Kettunen, 2008). This articulation was challenged, for example, by Linda, an angel therapist and yoga instructor in her thirties. She felt that the Finnish work ethic was effectively harnessed to support the increasing acceleration of working life, leading to self-estrangement.

If we think about the pressures in working life, how hectic it is, so now in economic crisis people are made redundant and others have twice as much work as before. The pressure is high, and with our sense of always managing no matter what, we always try to do our best. We over-perform which means that we are soon burnt out. [...] But demands are rising all the time and we just give more all the time, show that we can do it even better and better, and we just do not stop for a moment to ask ourselves what it is that we really want or what our body is telling us.

Therapeutic practices were thus narrated as promising to deliver that which neoliberal working life refuses to: an opportunity to slow down the movement, halt the spin, turn off the machine.

Paula, a longstanding work-life coach and energy healer in her fifties, questioned the neoliberal spirit of capitalism centred around self-governance, flexibility and autonomy. In her view, it had turned into an oppressive imperative that constantly demanded one to be more but led to a sense that nothing was ever enough. Interpellations of self-governance led to the loss of one’s sense of self. As with the machine metaphors above, there was a sense of being caught in an ‘iron cage’:

First, there’s no working time any more, in the sense of from eight to four or something like that. [...] The more creative the field you are in, or the higher in the hierarchy you go, the meaning of working time decreases. And in many workplaces you have to be self-governing. [...] It’s in principle a very fine phenomenon, but I wonder if people are always really ready for that. [...]. It’s an ideal, you know; we admire people who travel and are self-governing. [...] And we think that gee, what a dream job, she has a car, phone, computer and all. Burberry scarf round her neck and everything. Wow. But at the end of the day, I think many of them are lost with their work. They just simply don’t get rid of their role, they don’t get away from work, because they are working and self-governing all the time. There’s no-one to say that ‘Hey, now you can slow down, you don’t need to do more'. [...] When you don’t have working time, when you constantly meet new people. [...] well, then you don’t necessarily know who you are any more. [...] Well, you really need to halt, simply because there’s no one telling you anymore that your work day is over.

The second trope through which experiences of alienation were articulated was ‘refusal of subjectivity’, stemming from an inability to influence one’s work conditions and a sense of being refused as a person. As discussed above, in contemporary working life, people are incited to invest in work and apprehend it as a source of pleasure and self-realisation; yet the narratives of work in our study repeatedly emphasised the imperatives of unconditional obedience, docility and disciplining power over personality. Many of our research participants had actively voiced problems and criticisms in their workplaces, some even in their capacity as trade union representatives, and had tried to negotiate their workloads and work organisation (for similar obseivations, see Rikala, 2016). They had sought institutional support from health and safety departments or had contacted occupational health staff to deal with their situation, but to no avail. These experiences of not being heard or allowed to express work-related discontent had often been instrumental in leading to burnout.

We illustrate this with three cases. Our first case is Tiina, a middle-aged woman who was employed in university administration for decades and had a history as a shop steward in her workplace. She had gone through a severe burnout involving a period of hospitalisation in a psychiatric ward. She recounted how work had ‘swallowed her completely’ and ‘expanded everywhere', as she was constantly checking her emails and answering phone calls after the workday had finished. Moreover, her workplace had been in a cycle of constant reorganisation, which meant that her tasks had been both changing and increasing all the time. She recounted how her autonomy at work had gradually diminished, which she felt was ‘cutting off my fingers one after another’. She contemplated with a sense of disbelief how her workplace had turned from an organisation emphasising critical thinking into one where ‘you are no longer allowed to question or criticise, you just have to perform as you are told’. She vociferously problematised what she saw as increasing demands for obedience and ‘blind submission’ to work: ‘Everyone should just be like the managers proclaim. They proclaim that if you’re not capable of coping with the change, or if you don’t accept the change, then you are automatically somehow a worse person.’ Thus, Tiina felt that the structural problems at work had translated into her being dismissed as a person.

Julia, another middle-aged woman, had gone through burnout and had also served as a shop steward in her workplace. She worked in a security company and had experienced serious workplace bullying after voicing her dissatisfaction with the way the organisation was led. She felt that people were nowadays expected to ‘work like robots’, ‘just perform and have no opinions’ and ‘simply obey those who have power'. Like Tiina, she had a strong sense of having been refused as a person in her workplace: T was not accepted in my community as a person’. This expression conveyed a strong personal sense of exclusion on the basis of subjectivity. Julia’s criticism had been labelled by the leadership as ‘grumbling’ and ‘negativity’. She described how the situation at work ‘drove her to the edge of madness’, which she managed to avoid by starting to read spiritual self-help books and writing down her feelings. Reading and writing had led her to a ‘spiritual path' that allowed her to ‘care for herself and gave her moral strength. Unlike Tiina, Julia had stayed in her workplace as a form of resistance:

They tried to oust me out of my job, but I decided that I’m not going away as I haven’t done anything wrong. If I had gone then, I feel I would have somehow been accepting all the things that they accused me of... So, I found spirituality in my life through this kind of hell.

Our last example comes from Carita, a single mother in her forties, working in a facility for the disabled. She was suffering from prolonged ethical strain in her work. As a result of workplace bullying, lack of resources and her own precarious position as a temp, she felt she was unable to work according to her own values, but had to treat her clients in a way that she experienced as humiliating. At the time of the interview, she said she was depressed and was thinking of changing jobs. She felt dismissed and denied as a person, having to ‘squeeze herself into a mould into which she could not fit. Crucial to her sense of alienation was a clash between her enthusiasm for work and its refusal by her workplace:

I’m the kind of person who gets excited about everything and I want to be involved, would like to develop and do things. I’m a cheerful and enthusiastic person, so I’m amroyed that I just have to keep my mouth shut and keep my thoughts to myself [at work]. I have to diminish and reduce myself there.

In her interview, she contemplated at length how a women’s therapeutic selfhelp group that she was attending at the time of the interview had provided her with a ‘new language’ to make sense of her situation. The group had allowed her to apprehend her problems as stemming from power dynamics in the workplace rather than from herself, allowing her to turn her self-blame into critique against injustice experienced at work:

They can’t treat me however they like, tell me whatever they like. Before, I used to withdraw into myself and get depressed, filed for sick leave because I felt too distressed. I’m quite distressed also now. I would like not to go to my work anymore, ’cos I’m nobody there. I feel I’m not appreciated. It’s so demeaning. And I think my co-workers won’t change even if I change. My thinking is becoming better, and my self-esteem as well, but my co-workers will probably stay the same. They will treat me bad even if I were to change and try to defend myself. I think there's even more resistance and they slate me even more now that I tty to voice my opinions. Before, I used to withdraw into myself and scold myself, but now I see that it’s not necessarily my fault, that the problems do not stem from me.

The psychological discourse learnt in the self-help group had allowed Carita to see her work from a new angle and formulate criticism of the power relations at work in her organisation. Rather than individualising and psychologising problems at work, the self-help group had helped her to turn the blame away from herself and towards the work organisation. However, as the quote above reveals, she was well aware of the limits of self-transformation as a solution to workplace conflict.

These three examples illustrate how therapeutic practices had allowed the research participants to make sense of their burnout as socially produced, stemming from poor leadership and organisation of work, destructive culture and lack of necessary resources. These narratives are striking, as they reveal a deep contradiction between the neoliberal ‘new spirit of capitalism' kinds of interpellation promising flexibility, self-realisation and autonomy, and the experienced realities of work ‘on the ground', where work is seen as characterised by stern discipline and demands for conformism, obedience and subordination - the same characteristics that the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ was supposed to do away with (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2005). This contradiction leads to a deeply felt sense of alienation. In what follows, we discuss how the assembling of therapeutic packages of self-care operates as a way to try to alleviate alienation and escape the grip of neoliberal working life.

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