Cautionary tales from the coalface: The search for meaning & occupational balance in life in the performance driven world of neoliberal capitalism

Poster at the World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT) congress, Cape Town, South Africa, 23 May 2018.

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Cautionary Tales from the Coalface:
The Search for Meaning & Occupational Balance in Life in the Performance Driven World of Neoliberal Capitalism

Dr Teena J Clouston, School of Healthcare  Sciences, Cardiff University


Occupational therapists profess a philosophical belief that occupational balance and engagement in meaningful occupation can enhance wellbeing in life; but what occupational balance is and how a balanced lifestyle imbued with meaning is constructed, lived and experienced is not clearly articulated. Moreover, in modern life stress and work-life imbalance is reportedly rising, causing ill health and ill-being at individual, family and social levels (Clouston 2014, 2015). The overarching question for this research was how the cultures and pressures of contemporary workplaces impact on constructing and living occupational balance. As experts in meaning, wellbeing and life balance occupational therapists were considered to be informed participants for this study.

Aim & Objectives

This study set out to explore the phenomenon of occupational balance for occupational therapists working and living in the contemporary health and social care sector in the UK. The objectives were:

  • To understand how occupational therapists construct and identify their occupational and/or work-life and balance.
  • To analyse how participants conceptualise and experience the relationships between workplace cultures and their occupational  and/or work-life balance.
  • To identify whether workplace cultures constrain or facilitate  occupational and/or work-life balance, and if so, how.
  • To compare and contrast these experiences across two different organisational settings.


Data were gathered through semi-structured interviews and an interpretive phenomenological approach was utilised for analysis. 29 occupational therapists participated:  18 from the health care sector and 11 from social services.


The experience of paid work profoundly influenced achieving occupational balance and work-life balance: cultures in both organisations were dominated by power dynamics, which, in turn were shaped by the political and economic model of neoliberal capitalism pervading UK fiscal practice in global markets. Working together, these forces drove intensified working practices, which increased workloads and expectations in terms of work based productivity outcomes. These pressures infiltrated physically and psychologically into  the individual’s space and time for personally meaningful occupations, both in and outside of work. Participants described little or no sense of autonomy over this, sharing stories of work cultures marked by pressure, stress, power and control driven by a sense of  fear focused around insecurity and precarity in the workplace. Participants were particularly concerned about how these destructive cultures were driven and maintained by creating concerns about opportunities for career advancement:

It’s almost as if there’s a kind of culture fear in work-life balance really. And I won’t kind of, dare step out of line for fear of the consequences. And, you know, possibly with some justification. Because there’s always this kind of implied threat hanging over people. If you step out of line you may not lose your job but life can be made difficult for you. And your promotion prospects might diminish.

As a consequence of these experiences, participants  described a continued sense of professional and personal disenfranchisement in the organisations. They talked about “being ignored”, having “no sense of power” being “dominated” and “misunderstood” …because they sort of think we’re just an extra small, but very noisy and whining group”.

These cultures created and supported fertile grounds for workplaces populated by negative relationships, values and perspectives based on the interweaving webs of coercion and control:

And sometimes people can describe constant barriers, you know? Because you might come up with one answer [to manage your workload/balance] then it moves. And then it’s difficult. Like with any sort of industrial relation problem that you have with a manager. How far are you prepared to stick in your neck on the line? It’s the same with the work-life balance as it is with the grievance policy. You’ve got the right to take out the grievance but you know if you take that out then it’s going to mark your card for later on. And I think that’s always high in people’s minds.

This in turn created lived experiences of physical and psychological stress and pressure that stymied personal growth and wellbeing in everyday life. A crucial emergent theme was the lack of a sense of wellbeing and meaning in life  that permeated the participants’ everyday lives:

It’s work, caring and somewhere down the line my family. I’d actually like to be able to spend some time on leisure. Which is very small and doesn’t feel particularly good. But you just keep going and wait for your next piece of annual leave to recover really. And there’s no meaning in that is there? It’s just existing.

These findings suggested that a move from the performance orientation of neoliberal capitalism was necessitated to achieve a more personally  meaningful occupational balance and work-life balance in everyday life.


This study clearly identified that the drivers of neoliberal capitalism in the UK negate work-life and occupational balance and a sense of wellbeing and meaning in everyday life. As neoliberalism is a global phenomenon it is likely that the results are relevant to others who work in the performance driven world it creates. The study  postulates the principles of a meaning orientation over a focus on productivity and economic growth is necessitated if human wellbeing, meaning and occupational balance are to be actuated in the practice of everyday life.  This has implications for individual occupational therapists in terms of constructing their own occupational balance and finding personal meaning and wellbeing in life; but also challenges the profession to think differently about how it can assist others to achieve occupational balance, wellbeing and meaning in life through professional practice. This leads to the final point: as occupational therapists  have a philosophical belief that occupational balance and personal meaning in life is integral to wellbeing perhaps the time is  right for the profession to address the drive for performance over meaning in life at a wider socio-economic level. If we do this it just may make a difference.


Clouston TJ 2015. Challenging stress, burnout and rust-out: Finding balance in busy lives. London. Jessica Kingsley

Clouston TJ 2014.  Whose occupational balance is it anyway: The challenge of neoliberal capitalism and work-life imbalance. British Journal of Occupational Therapy. 77,10, 507-515

For any comments, queries or interest please email Dr Teena Clouston:

For further information please also visit:

Living life in Balance website: https//

Cardiff University web site:

If you wish to use this paper please cite the author and use the correct referencing styles provided by your organisation. Thank you.

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