Defining occupational alienation

Occupational alienation is indicated when a person is doing something they are not engaging with. This is indicated in lay terms such as going through the motions or her heart wasn’t in it. Repeatedly experiencing occupational alienation has adverse consequences for health, associated with prolonged exposure to the physiological and psychological stress response. A person may feel they are not themselves, suggesting an intrapersonal, or internal, sense of alienation which in extreme situations would be dissociation. The person may also be socially alienated from others. It is useful to distinguish between occupational, intrapersonal and social alienation. Occupational alienation is closely related to other forms of occupational injustice and can be addressed by attending to several factors. One is the form or way in which a person is doing something: this can be adapted or changed to be more engaging, satisfying or meaningful. Involving the person in this process of adaptation gives them more control of the occupation, or what they are doing, so that they feel a greater sense of ownership. The occupation can then be considered to belong to them, being part of their occupational identity. These elements are core to therapeutic practice and should equally be valued in participatory action research.

An occupational alienation tweetchat

Thanks for being interested in the occupational alienation tweetchat on November 18th 2014. In preparation, I want to share four areas of interest:
1. Why I’m interested in occupational alienation as a concept
2. What occupational alienation is
3. Some problems with it as a concept
4. Some possibilities for improving health and social care practice

My interest in occupational alienation as a concept started 12 years ago when I was trying to understand some research data. It took Radiohead’s “Life in a Glasshouse” song and Wordsworth’s poem ” The Old Cumberland Beggar” (Bromwich 1991) to see a connection between this concept and others. Essentially I understood that it was useful to think about occupation in a more nuanced sense, beyond the advantages of engaging in occupation and securing a balance of different occupations. It was not just a matter of what you do but the way that you do it. For me, this linked to the artistry of practice, a useful point from which to critique the kind of packaged and standardised versions of therapy and care which are so fashionable but so unachievable in practice.

Occupational alienation has been described in terms of boredom, frustration and other feelings associated with not being able to do things the way you want to do them. Thus you might choose to go for a walk but you are dissatisfied because the walk is not the experience you hoped for, because of any number of reasons. It’s not hard to see how occupational alienation could describe the experience of anyone at any time.

This raises an issue: what is the point of naming this experience, which is so common, in occupational terms? Marx first used it to describe the experiences of workers in the Industrial Revolution in the UK as part of his political critique. In our more psychologically focused times, it’s not clear why feelings such as boredom should be labelled occupational alienation. Equally, it could be argued that alienation is essentially a social phenomenon, describing people who are separated or excluded from one another. Finally, in the context of my research in mental health, the experience of alienation can be a profoundly personal and internal one, raising questions about the purpose and meaning of life itself.

So many people might be feeling alienated, occupationally or otherwise. Can naming the experience as an occupational one add anything helpful in health and social care practice? I would argue that it’s worth thinking about. For people who are bored, frustrated and demotivated, it suggests a way forward that focuses not on what they might want to do, but the way they might want to do it. This gives the person, the occupational therapist and others involved a real chance to negotiate (becoming more socially inclusive), taking feelings seriously (and engaging psychologically). But it also offers a practical focus as simple as acknowledging that the smell of a nice bar of soap can change everything, but not for everyone.

An important word to use in association with alienation is belonging. This might appear to be a social concept more than anything else until you think about your belongings, what you own and value. These objects and places shape the way you do what you do. If those belongings never quite meet your needs, there could be a sense of occupational alienation. If your coat is too thin and you live in a cold place, this will affect how you engage with outdoor occupations in winter and their meaning or purpose for you. If your coat is thin because you live in poverty, the concept of occupational alienation can add another dimension for understanding deprivation and injustice.

Finally I want to suggest that occupational alienation is intrinsic to the creative process. It is necessary to feel alienated at some level, to perceive a gap, disjuncture or problem, something that is not right, before the new form emerges. From this perspective it’s possible to see people’s struggles to recover in terms of occupational alienation, and consider belonging and ownership as a potential focus for progress. I look forward to exploring this further in the tweetchat. If you can’t join us then you might be interested in the resources below.

Dr Wendy Bryant, School of Health and Human Sciences, University of Essex
November 10th 2014

Further resources
Bromwich, D. (1991) Alienation and belonging to humanity. Social Research 58: 139-157
Thibeault R (2007) in Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (eds) Enabling occupation II: Advancing a Canadian occupational therapy vision for health, well-being and justice through occupation. Ottawa: CAOT
Wilcock, A. (2006) An occupational perspective on health. 2nd edition. New Jersey: SLACK Inc.

And my own writing
Bryant W (2014) Creating opportunities for participation within and beyond community mental health services. In Soderback I (ed) International Handbook of Occupational Therapy Interventions.
Bryant W (2008) Occupational, social and intrapersonal alienation explored in the community. In McKay EA, Craik C, Lim KHZ, Richards G (eds) Advancing occupational therapy in mental health practice.
Bryant W, Craik C, McKay E (2004) Living in a glasshouse: exploring occupational alienation. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy 71(5) 282-289