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Working to Live (Part 2)


I wrote a few weeks ago about the problems faced by France Telecom and the increase in the suicide rate amongst its workers. I can’t claim any credit (much as I’d like to) but the Schumpeter column in The Economist picked up on this story and added some worrying statistics to the mix.

America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics has calculated that work related suicides increased by 28% between 2007 and 2008. Think about that for a moment: the number of people who were so unhappy with their work that the only way out was for them to kill themselves increased by more than a quarter in the space of one year – and, in the words of the article, “suicide is only the tip of an iceberg of work-related unhappiness.”

The Centre for Work-Life Policy has found that between June 2007 and December 2008, the number of people who said they were loyal to their employers dropped from 95% to 39%. The number of people who said they trusted their employers fell from 79% to 22%. In other words, if the statistics are to be believed, 75% of people don’t trust their employers and 60% are disloyal or, at best, neutral. It seems that, increasingly, employees are finding themselves trapped in jobs they dislike for employers they distrust.

Unusually for The Economist, the article is deafening in its silence on what should be done about this. Telling managers to think more carefully about what they say or advising workers that longer term demographic trends mean they’ll have the upper hand eventually is, frankly, fatuous. Something has to change and it has to change now.

Much of this unhappiness comes from the drive for efficiency, which I’ve labelled previously as the drive to achieve more with less. This in itself stems from the work of Frederick Taylor, who believed that work could be studied scientifically in order to find the most efficient way of working. In his words, “through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation... faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.”

There are two things that I’d like to point out: firstly, Taylor uses the word enforce (or variations of it), five times in two sentences. I don’t think that enforcement is a helpful or effective way of gaining co-operation. Secondly, Taylor – one of the first if not the first management consultant, the father of scientific management and the man whose theories permeate almost every part of business today – was a bit of a fraud.

I’ll be developing these ideas further over the coming weeks in a series of articles that challenge some of the sacred cows of business and I’d love to know your opinion; please do sign up, post comments and get involved in the debate.

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