Can organisations make people ill?

In my previous post[1] I argued that rather than talk about corporate or organisational pathology it might make more sense to speak of corporate pathologisation or the pathological effects of corporate life.  Otherwise we end up treating the organisation itself as the pathological subject, which creates all kinds of conceptual and practical difficulties.

However, this then begs the question as to how an organisation or a corporate entity can produce (psycho)pathology in an individual.  At first sight the answer may seem so obvious that it hardly deserves consideration; after all, everybody ‘knows’ that organisations can stress people out, place unreasonable demands on them, force/persuade them to work ridiculously long hours, and so forth.  Furthermore, there are numerous theories from across the academic disciplines which purport to explain the mechanism of stress and other mental health problems that people encounter in the workplace, in corporate life.  Like most ‘obvious’ answers, however, further exploration reveals that it’s anything but.

To start with, not everyone who works in the corporate environment ‘succumbs’ to stress or some other kind of mental health problem.  Or rather, if they do, it’s by no means obvious.  This suggests either that some individuals are more vulnerable than others to the (dis)stress of corporate life, or that some manifestations of psychopathology pass off as more or less ‘normal’.  The extension of this argument, of course, is that, in fact, those who appear ‘ill’ are healthy because they cannot, or refuse to, cope with what is essentially a pathological environment.  Furthermore, those who are apparently ‘coping’ are the really ‘sick’ ones.  Broadly speaking, this is the basis of the ‘corporate psychopath’ argument, which is that certain organisations, and particular in their higher echelons, attract extremely damaged people, and, ironically, provide them with precisely the kind of environment within which they can thrive, whilst making everyone else’s life an absolute misery.[2].

For anyone who has been unfortunate to encounter the corporate psychopath in action (and I include myself amongst their number) this argument is inherently appealing.  This is mainly because it suggests that it’s the other person who is to blame – which is always satisfying!  However, this argument runs into immediate difficulties: to start with, is the corporate psychopath (assuming such a person exists) just as much a ‘victim’ of the organisation as anyone else?  The fact that such individuals can thrive in certain environments does not mean that such environments are necessarily doing them any good – at least in the long run.  There is a more sophisticated (and worrying) argument, however, which is that there is something inherently pathological about corporate life itself and so-called corporate psychopaths are simply better able to cope with such a life.  One might even argue that because they are already ‘ill’ such individuals are ‘immune’ to the inherent toxicity of corporate life.

But this then brings us back to the problem of how a corporation, an organisation, can be ‘toxic’ or ‘pathological’ in the first place.  However, what if we were to argue that there is something inherently pathologising, as opposed to pathological, about organisational life itself?   Then we might be getting somewhere.  If we take a step further and define an organisation as a network of signs (signifiers and signifieds), or even, if we want to be Foucauldian about it, as a network of discursive practices, then we could ask: is there something inherently pathologising about such networks of signs, such networks of discursive practices?

The Lacanian answer is a definite yes.  Such networks are in the realm of the Symbolic and Imaginary, and it’s the Symbolic in particular that both constructs and divides the human subject.  The key point here is that, from the Lacanian position, we are either divided by the Symbolic, by language, or we are foreclosed from it.  From a clinical perspective, the former position is that of neurosis, whereas the latter is that of psychosis.  Either way, our encounter with the Symbolic order tends to end badly.  To put it another way, we all suffer the effects of the Symbolic order, though in different ways.

However, this still doesn’t explain why particular organisations, why particular configurations of the Symbolic-Imaginary, should have particular pathological effects on particular individuals.  According to Lacanian theory, our clinical structures are laid down in early childhood, albeit still within specific configurations of the Symbolic-Imaginary.  So any later encounters with the Symbolic-Imaginary are not going alter our fundamental structures, our forms of negating the Name-of-the-Father (‘classical Lacan) or our forms of the sinthome (‘later’ Lacan).

However, even if we accept this proposition for the time being, it could still be argued that a present day encounter with the Symbolic-Imaginary is likely to cause problems.  At its most basic it could trigger an underlying or ‘latent’ psychosis; or it could enact an encounter between Master and Slave; or, as is often the case in care organisations, enact an ‘over-identification’ between carer and client.[3]

In other words, whatever was laid down in childhood is now ‘enacted’ within the current, present day configurations of the Symbolic-Imaginary.  Or, to somewhat oversimplify the argument, the current, present day configurations of the Symbolic-Imaginary ‘enact’ particular forms of transference relations, which are further mediated by the particular clinical structure of the subject in question.

So, in response to my original question, i.e. can organisations make people ill?, the answer is yes – but only because they were already ill, already pathologised, in the first place.  And that means all of us…..

  1. []
  2. See for example Clive Boody’s work on corporate psychopaths:  Boddy, C.R. (2011) The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis. Journal of Business Ethics, (102), pp.255-259; Boddy, C.R. (2006) The dark side of management decisions: organisational psychopaths. Management Decision, 44 (10), pp.1461-1475. []
  3. See Vanheule et al’s paper on burnout as a good example of this:   Vanheule, S., Lievrouw, A. & Verhaeghe, P. (2003) Burnout and Intersubjectivity: A Psychoanalytical Study from a Lacanian Perspective. Human Relations, 56 (3), p.pp.321-338. []