How Australia's employment services system fails jobseekers: Insights from self-determination theory

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Cheryl Sykes


active labour market programs (ALMPs), intervention, welfare conditionality, mutual obligation requirements, employment services, unemployment, mental health, well-being, basic psychological needs, self-determination theory


The implicit motivational assumptions of active labour market policies/programs (ALMPs) are that human behaviour can be predicted and controlled using positive and negative reinforcers such as rewards and incentives, and sanctions and punishments respectively. More contemporary psychological perspectives, however, propose that motivation does not emanate solely from the individual but is inextricably linked to the social context, with consequences for mental health. Little, if any, research in labour markets has considered the degree to which the motivation and mental health of unemployed people might be impacted by ALMPs more generally, and in particular, the Australian employment services system. In this paper a self-determination theory perspective is adopted, with analysis of longitudinal survey data of a sample of jobseekers in the ‘jobactive’ program examining how mental health was impacted as a consequence of their mandatory engagement with the frontline employees of employment services providers. The study concludes that unemployed people experience the employment services system as unhelpful and ineffective in assisting them to secure employment, and that engagement with the system is more likely than not to have an adverse effect on their mental health, primarily through the psychological need for relatedness and competence. The results have important implications for policy given the significant economic and human cost of diminished mental health and provide a constructive yardstick for the evaluation of alternative systems.

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