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Should we be having therapy at work?

We spend more time with our colleagues than our romantic partners – so should we be investing in corporate therapy, too? Esther Perel thinks so

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By Rivkah Brown on

Last October, at a brightly lit, pot-planted coworking space less than a block from the White House, the popular psychologist Esther Perel addressed 150 people who so badly wanted to know how Perel had gone “from being a therapist to a relationship-advice brand” that they’d got there at 8am to find out. The main challenge, she shared, was “‘How do I scale?’ I always thought of therapy as happening in person with one individual or with a couple. How do you go wide without compromising depth and complexity?”

Besides bestselling books (Perel was at WeWork to promote her latest, The State of Affairs), the main way Perel has gone from being some people’s to “the people’s therapist”, as the FT recently put it, is with her hit podcast Where Should We Begin? Since October, Perel has been therapising the masses with 45-minute couples’ counselling sessions that veer between juicy gossip and uncomfortable home truths, and have catapulted her to global celebrity.

Anyone born after 1990 will only dimly remember a time when divulging that you’d seen a psychotherapist was the equivalent of saying you’d participated in a shamanic ritual; it made you seem mad and bourgeois in equal measure. Yet as popular culture has turned inward and mental health increasingly outward, self-care rituals like therapy have become the order of the day: 28% of the 2,084 British adults surveyed by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy in 2014 said they'd consulted a counseller or psychotherapist, up from 20% in 2010. If we carry on at this rate, we’ll all be on the couch by 2050.

The reason we’re seeking out audio therapy rather than the real deal, though, is that supply isn’t keeping up with demand: Mind's 2017 report, We still need to talk: A report on access to talking therapies, revealed that one in 10 people have been waiting over a year to receive treatment. Radio, from Susie Orbach’s 2016 BBC Radio 4 programme In Therapy to Perel’s own Where Should We Begin?, has stepped into this gap. There’s also something of the Eleanor Rigby about the boom in podcast therapy: we yearn for closeness with others, but are painfully unable to seek it out. Podcasts like Perel’s are the perfect solution for city living, conjuring a feeling of intimacy with none of the emotional vulnerability.

If in personal therapy happiness is an end in itself, corporate therapy enlists happiness in the service of productivity: happy workers make healthy profits

Though not quite as hot off the mark as their American counterparts, British employers have begun to cotton on to this trend towards better mental healthcare – not least because their failure to do so costs them £35bn a year. Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report found that 36% of the 202 UK employers they surveyed offered mental-health counselling, versus 21% of organisations worldwide. This brings me on to the second, lesser-known way in which Perel has scaled her therapeutic offering: according to her website, she now services not only people but also “Fortune 500 companies around the world”. Transferring her eminently transferable skills from the therapy room to the boardroom, Perel helps multinationals like Nike and Johnson & Johnson build relationships with their staff and help their staff become happier at work. Given that mental-health trusts in England received £105m less in real terms in 2016-17 than in 2011-12, the future of therapy, if there is one, may well be at work.

Should this bother us? Is there any difference between corporate and couples’ therapy? No, says Perel, according to whom relationships are relationships are relationships: “I believe that human connection has transformative power,” reads her website bio, “in all aspects of our lives”. Given that we spend most of our waking hours at work, perhaps it’s inevitable – healthy, even – that we’ve begun to analogise professional relationships to personal ones. “It’s a marriage,” Perel told the WeWork crowd. “You’ll spend more time together than the partners you live with.” Of course, this blurring is more than simply metaphorical, as Perel, whose son works at Google – the company with a cult that’s launched a thousand op-eds and even a book-turned-film – well knows.

On the other hand, workplace counselling radically and perhaps wrongly reorients the aim of traditional psychotherapy. If in personal therapy happiness is an end in itself, corporate therapy enlists happiness in the service of productivity: happy workers make healthy profits. Employers are interested in our mental health only inasmuch as it affects their bottom line, a fact that’s hard to bear in mind when you’re being psychologically love-bombed into submission. It’s hard not to feel like the ambition of the the New Age workplace love-in is to turn us all into obliging, efficient, sedate worker bees, an idea even Perel acknowledges to the FT:

“I think a boss or a manager who reaches out, who cares if you’ve done well, if you’ve not done well, if you have a good day, a bad day. Whoever introduces that concept of humanity is a good boss, but they will also get a lot more in return. Because if you treat me like this... I’ll give you everything I have.”

The only question left to answer is: if we’re giving everything, including our innermost thoughts, to the workplace, what, then, is left for ourselves?


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