'Against wellbeing: The problem of resources, metrics and care of the self' by Brendon Murphy in Alternative Law Journal states
This article critically engages with the concept and practice of ‘wellbeing’. Over the last decade, managerial practices have broadly introduced ‘wellbeing’ policies into the workplace, including the legal workplace. While these practices, in principle, can offer important forms of support for staff under professional stress, they can also be counterproductive, and have the effect of escalating stress and isolation. Drawing on Foucault, this article turns wellbeing on its head and identifies the dark side of what has become a widely practised form of control. It concludes by advocating for employee dialogue and genuine care rather than responsibilising employees for systemic failings.
In August 2020, the Victorian State Coroner published findings into the death of Magistrate Stephen Myall.1 His Honour took his own life by hanging. He was the second Victorian Magistrate to die by suicide in recent years. In 2017, Magistrate Jacinta Dwyer took her own life, as did court clerk Ashleigh Petrie in 2019.3 The Coroner found that Magistrate Myall was a diligent, thoughtful and respected professional who took his work very seriously, and went to great lengths to assist the unrepresented.
A central finding was that the relentless pressures of work were a major factor in Stephen Myall’s death. It was not uncommon for him to be required to adjudicate on up to 90 matters a day. In the absence of any evidence of clinical depression, drug or alcohol abuse, the implication was that suicide was the result of sustained work pressures: a shocking indictment on the criminal justice system. Regrettably, the lower Courts around Australia, and internationally, are infamous for the volume of work that passes through them. Much of the focus is on the process itself. Rarely is the question raised of the personal impact on legal and judicial officers.
The inevitable questions arise: why would a highly respected professional take their own life, and what could have been done to prevent sustained work pressures that were evidently key factors. The standard response in this era is to implement ‘wellbeing’ programs, intended to provide psychological support to staff in the performance of their duties. That was the case in the Victorian Courts, which had offered several programs, including counselling and debriefings with trained psychologists. While there is much that is positive in that response, there are aspects of it that require a more thoughtful analysis. As the title of this article suggests, this work is critical of the tendency of organisations that try to deal with employee (dis)stress by individualising the context. Wellbeing, as a concept and strategy, has a dark side that needs to be identified and critiqued. Wellbeing programs and theory are part of a larger social change. Over the last decade, wellbeing has been rolled out as part of a discourse on dealing with stress and an apparent mental health crisis in the legal profession. In Australia, Professor Parker’s synthesis of the literature between 2004 and 2014 confirmed the apparent rise of distress, mental health crises and broad unhappiness in the legal profession, beginning in law school. The solution, inter alia, has been wellbeing programs. Parker argued that while there are distinct merits in offering support to colleagues, staff and students, the conclusion is that the studies informing the literature were largely flawed because of self-selection bias in reporting. Of greater concern was a strong ‘individualising discourse’ evident in the literature. Wellbeing was identified as a response to a ‘moral panic’ disproportionate to the need and had the potential to depoliticise the root causes.
Following Parker, this article is critical of programs that focus on the individual as the source of the problem. There are three angles of criticism. First, there is a tendency of such programs to deflect back onto individuals, as personal failings, issues linked to poor management and a lack of resources. Second is the managerial use of ‘wellbeing’ as a technology of power in the workplace. Third is the despair that results from being problematised as not coping or recalcitrant. In short, ‘wellbeing’ programs may very well be part of the problem, rather than a solution. Much depends on the context. In some cases, the implementation of ‘wellbeing’ has the opposite effect, undermining the sense of competence and connection of employees, and does nothing to address the material conditions that are the root cause of most employee stress: resources. While the example here is the judicial context, the issue is much broader. Whatever benefits may exist through having a care for colleagues in the employment setting, there is a dark side to ‘wellbeing’ that is overlooked. The implementation of ‘wellbeing’ programs has the tendency to effectively blame individuals for not coping with ‘cultural change’ and obscures the absence of resources as a material source of work-related stress. In addition, such programs creative a normative paradigm through which the individual is measured as ‘well’. For those who are not ‘well’, the category functions to enhance psychological and organisation pressure and reduce esteem and confidence. That individualisation not only obscures the organisational cause, but also the disruption of family and workplace relationships caused by the intensification of work. The net impact is the erosion of the sense of personal competence and workplace relationships that nourish and sustain daily life fundamental to resilience in professional and personal life.