The Unconscious at Work: Individual and Organizational Stress in the Human Services

The Unconscious at Work: Individual and Organizational Stress in the Human Services

The Unconscious at Work: Individual and Organizational Stress in the Human Services

The Unconscious at Work: Individual and Organizational Stress in the Human Services


Working in the human services has always been stressful, and the current massive changes in the organization of these services, together with dwindling resources and ever greater demands for cost effectiveness, add to the stresses inherent in the work. Even in the best run and best resourced organizations there are pockets of irrationality where unconscious institutional processes undermine both effectiveness and morale.
The contributors to this book use ideas drawn from psychoanalysis, open systems theory, Bion's work with groups, and group relations training to explore the difficulties experienced by managers and staff in a wide range of care settings. Each concept is illustrated with examples from practice to make it recognizable and useful to the reader.
Each chapter develops a theme relating to work with a particular client group or setting (including hospitals, schools, day centres, residential units, community services and many others), or explores aspects of work organization (for example, the supervisory relationship, facing cuts and closure, or intergroup collaboration). By describing both the difficulties and their own feelings and thoughts while consulting to these institutions, the authors offer the reader new ways of looking at their own experiences at work which will be both enlightening and helpful.


Writing this foreword offered me an opportunity to remember my own experiences in the Consulting to Institutions Workshop, which has served as a kind of incubator for the ideas developed in this volume. That was over ten years ago, and although only one of the authors represented in this volume was in the workshop at that time, the same spirit of integrity, forthrightness and compassion that touched me so then has clearly remained in force since, if the following chapters can be taken as an indication.

A central theme of these chapters concerns the need for human service professionals to confront the powerful and primitive emotional states that underlie helping relationships (especially with people in dire need), and consider how the staff members of these organizations can function effectively without becoming chaotic or withdrawn. Another is how the organizational arrangements themselves—the structures, cultures, modes of operation, etc.—can help or hinder in protecting this precious capacity.

To explore the complex interplay of person and setting, the authors employ a frame of reference pioneered at the Tavistock Clinic that strives to integrate systems thinking with psychoanalysis. Its focus renders the impact of individually experienced anxiety, guilt and doubt visible in the collective life and work of human service organizations. It also illustrates how different levels of caring systems—from the individual, to the primary work group, to the whole organization and the wider environment—interpenetrate, and how dynamics at one level can affect and be mirrored at other levels. the authors offer an enormously rich and enriching approach to understanding the powerful forces that suffuse human service organizations. I am confident that these reflections will be valuable for any managers, practitioners or students of human service organizations willing to grapple with these ideas.

I say ‘grapple’ for two reasons. One is that the authors have not watered down the ideas so as to make them effortlessly accessible or superficial. They are complicated ideas about complicated realities, and while the chapters are direct and understandable, they are far from simplistic. Another reason they require ‘grappling’ is the fullness and openness with which the authors confront the pain

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