About midway through the first episode of Esther Perel’s latest therapy podcast series, How’s Work?, it’s gently revealed that one of the participants we’ve been listening to for the past 20, maybe 25 minutes was literally shot in the face during a rowdy high school house party.
It’s difficult to imagine how Perel is able to keep the revelation secret for so long, but it’s part of what makes the episode, and the entire series, feel like listening to a mystery novel, full of psychological breadcrumbs and intrigue. The teenager would go on to join the air force, co-pilot a fighter jet, and then go into business with his co-pilot. Perel’s podcast is about what happens when the two co-pilots decide to part ways for the first time, and finally, start picking up the psychological pieces. How’s Work? pairs up work colleagues for raw, one-off counselling session with the celebrity therapist Perel, looking at the way that work has become more all-consuming, more precarious, and more emotionally fraught.
Despite her attempt to smooth out the nagging unconscious hang-ups of workplace psychology, one question remains a constant preoccupation throughout Perel’s podcast: Why has workplace mental health becomes so squalid that we need therapy in the first place? And will therapy really fix it?
Perel became the internet’s favourite therapist through an international career tracking relationships and infidelity. The daughter of Holocaust survivors living in Belgium, Perel has described her formative years as trying to make sense of the difference between “not being dead” and “being alive.” She studied therapy in Jerusalem before moving to New York and focusing on intercultural relationships. In 2015 she delivered an incredibly popular Ted Talk about cheating, which would lead to her first podcast series, Where Should We Begin?, broadcasting anonymized, one-off couples therapy sessions. With How’s Work? she’s turned from marriages to the workplace, looking to understand how technology and the modern economy have changed not only what kind of work we do, but how we relate to one another.
“The workplace relationship experience has become the new bottom line,” Perel says when I speak to her over the phone from her New York office. “I’ve been looking at how work has become a central hub for something it never was—identity, meaning, purpose and belonging.” Perel was struck by the way that patients who came into her office for couples therapy had come to see romantic relationships in economic terms, as well as describing their professional day-to-day in terms of romantic fixation.
What interests Perel most is when that fixation turns into a painful, Noah Baumbach-style situation: the betrayal, conflict, and breakdown of trust that plays out in our increasingly dramatic worklife. One particularly compelling episode has two co-founders of a communications firm gradually come to terms with the fact that their working lives are in a tailspin, and that they’re at each other’s necks (“That session is painful,” Perel tells me).
That landscape is one shaped by #MeToo, millennial burnout, and the increasing pushback against unionization in the service, tech, and creative industries. It’s a landscape where we’re continually asked to be emotionally available, ready to take on extra shifts and come to the table with new ideas every morning.
In another, a pair of erotic dancers work through cynicism and compassion in the backdrop of a strip club where management often fails to stand up for them. For Perel, the risk with workplace therapy is that it puts all the responsibility on the worker: “It puts the focus on the individual, but not the structures.” But what’s been driving these structural shifts? It’s a transformation between our grandparent’s generation, where people tended to work one job all their lives, to today’s far more unstable professional trajectory.
Perel points to three main factors that have driven the change: the rise of corporate mergers (which changed workers’ understanding of loyalty), a shift from production to a service economy, and the tech world’s push for gig work and short term contracts. All of this has changed the psychological makeup of the workplace, making colleague relationships a lot more high stakes.
Kathi Weeks, a leading scholar on the changing workplace and the author of The Problem with Work, says that at the end of the day, it’s the bosses that are driving the change. “It is not exactly that work is becoming more family-like: that fad in corporate culture building seems to be over. It is more that we are expected to want and to develop a more intimate relationship to work,” Weeks said.
“Rather than help us to adjust psychologically to the status quo, we could use some estrangement from the preset that might give us some critical perspective.”
That’s the tension with Perel’s new project. How do you address psychological complexity in the workplace without putting the burden on the workers who are struggling through it? Perel is surprisingly candid on this. “I think that young people are continuously encouraged to feel good about themselves, to embrace wellness and self-help that’s not actually helping them,” she says. Downloading the insecurities of modern work onto the workers themselves has radically altered how coworkers interact. “No amount of free food or money or purpose is going to compensate if you have a poisonous relationship in the workplace.”
When a tech company promises free meals, leisure space, shower rooms, Perel says, “Your work becomes your whole city, your community, where you take care of community, mental health needs. Of course, you hope it will contribute to your internal life, but it also says you can work here for many, many hours.”
For Perel, the task is to find a new “relational vocabulary” so we can deal with these problems. “There’s a whole emotional vocabulary that has entered the workplace, people build on trust, authenticity, psychological safety, this is a vocabulary that never had anything to do with the workplace.“ How’s Work? attempts to make it a more collective endeavour, to look beyond our personal turmoil towards a collective struggle. But don’t expect therapy to solve workplace politics.
How’s Work? is now out on Spotify and will be available on all platforms starting February 4.
Follow Josh on Twitter.