Resist cultural sinistrosis

Despite unstable and uncertain job market for techies, we continue to be indifferent to work-related stress in software sector

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 11th Oct 2017   12:01 am Updated: 11th Oct 2017   12:04 am

Two kinds of news reports about techie life have begun to make their appearance since about 2016.

One kind of coverage usually focuses on the techies’ flashy lifestyles and liquid incomes, their expansive and expensive holidays and the time spent staring at screens. The other kind of report focuses on workplace stress-related syndromes, high suicide rates, increasing infertility and such.

But we now see, since June 2017, when massive layoffs even from established companies began, a third. Reports appear regularly now about layoff-related depression among techies and young professionals. Debts, such as EMIs or car loans, incurred during their high-paying jobs now seem insurmountable. Counselling centres and helplines, reports suggest, have been receiving huge number of calls, mostly from such young professionals.

Cultural Blind Spotting

Two questions arise. Does the state account for inimical working conditions, even before the layoffs, among the techieretti? Would insurance and health coverage account for

work-related conditions and syndromes, if they have been laid off?

Do we recognise, in short, these as labour? Given the unstable, flexible and uncertain job market for these, the workplace stress-related syndromes need to be acknowledged as something the state must take cognisance of, even though these occur among the educated, well-heeled, well-paid people. But there is a cultural blind spot in seeing.

In the early 20th century, psychologists and forensic medicine specialists proposed that psychological trauma from accidents at the workplace are very often amplified and utilised by workers to claim indemnities. They used the term – sinistrosis – to cast suspicions on the claims of workers that they have been emotionally and psychologically scarred due to work-place related accidents, and thus discredited the workers.

Linked to the term ‘sinister’, sinistrosis entered the medical lexicon to devastating effect: such workers placed under suspicion for their sinister motives (such as avoiding work) were invariably immigrants. They were believed to be seeking welfare and other benefits by inventing symptoms.

Poor Working Conditions

The indifference to work-related stresses in software-related jobs that lead to high suicide-rates, depression and other injured psychological states combined with the media emphasis on the irresponsible, flashy techie, recalls this problematic historical diagnosis of workers.

Contemporary public response is a version of this older diagnosis of sinistrosis: the implicit assumption that stresses in such jobs are exaggerated, or that the workers are simply shirking, or that they are irresponsible. Sinistrosis is a key feature of the neoliberal economy where there is a staunch refusal to acknowledge certain forms of work as labour, or address questions of poor working conditions even in air-conditioned offices with free coffee.

Thus, until we recognise that flexible job assignments, timings and pay constitute instability rather than job assurance in the psyche of the workers, no matter what they work at, we will be engaged in sinistrosis. High pay accompanied by high-performance demands and its consequence, anxiety, is not an invented psychological state but the direct result of such working conditions. In the neoliberal economy when all worker bodies – including those of coders – are instrumentalised but with increasingly lower safety nets and stability – the symptom of, say, depression, is viewed with suspicion.

Culturally, and this includes the medical regimes, we do not wish to see the high-salaried employee of an MNC as a victim. In an earlier era, as anthropologists (Didier Fassin, among others) have noted, the symptoms of injury enabled sympathy, compassion and reparation. We may have slid back to a time before this when sinistrosis was the standard diagnosis of work-related psychological states, especially as it is applied to a certain class of workers.

Studies (by Rosalind Gill) of PhD-holding academics in the UK, for instance, have revealed that ad hoc teachers work under severely stressful conditions with no guarantees of tenure, salaries or welfare, but with high expectations of productivity, efficiency and accountability (we know that in India numerous permanent university teachers do not teach, do not research – unless they are plagiarising – and do not administer!).

A Shirker State

Sinistrosis is a form of cultural blindness produced by neoliberal economies’ conditions of working. It absolves the state of any responsibility (when the laid-off workers went to the government in June 2017, they were brusquely told, according to news reports, to‘re-skill’ themselves).

Further, their alienation is hardly deemed alienation due to the salaries and perks they command, or once commanded. Attribution of either amplified anxiety or shirking without an acknowledgement of work-related burnout and the anxiety around instability is clearly sinistrosis.

A nuancing of what we understand, even colloquially, as ‘labour’ might be essential if we are to accord even minimum sympathy and reparative safety nets to workers of all cadres and professions. Differential evaluation is, of course, essential, but to assume that ad hoc faculty in colleges and universities, the coder for an MNC or the business manager in a high-end firm do not, or ought not, to experience anxieties just because they are better paid is to ignore the instrumentalisation of all labouring bodies whose lives, days-and-nights and skills are organised to maximise profits with little attention to their future as once-coders.

The withdrawal (or absence) of state regulation via labour, indemnity and reparative laws in these sectors is not a matter of legal decision-making alone. The law, like all else, including medical science, is a manifestation of a cultural condition (or malaise) and hardly, therefore, ‘objective’. This means, if we wish to exert pressure on the state to ensure greater protection to all forms of workers and work, then cultural sinistrosis must be resisted.

Neoliberalism begins with deniability, refusing to concede that even these sectors are extremely risk-prone. To blame the coder and business manager for psychic stresses without accountability accruing to the companies for their working conditions is antithetical to any ethical principles a state might conform to.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)