We need to talk about work

Stephen Baker addresses the growing problem of work related stress and argues that jobs are about more than subsistence: they should be “meaningful to us, personally fulfilling and socially valuable”.

A long and lonely commute…

In April this year my GP signed me off work with ‘work related stress’. I didn’t see it coming. I knew that I was unhappy at work but it wasn’t until I surprised myself by breaking down in the doctor’s surgery that I realised how despairing I had become about my professional life. I had anticipated a much more routine appointment to discuss an ailment that has bothered me for seven years. But a polite enquiry from my doctor as to my health reduced me to tears. It took about ten minutes for me to recover myself sufficiently to talk, after which I identified my job as a cause of acute anxiety in my life. He told me I wasn’t fit to work – I was at that stage barely fit to speak. I left the health centre feeling like the ground had disappeared from beneath me and that I was in free-fall. With hindsight, I now understand that I had been treading metaphorical thin-air for quite a few years – like the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote in pursuit of his nemesis Roadrunner, who runs off the edge of a cliff but keeps going, legs flailing the air, gravity momentarily denied, reality suspended, before he looks down, realisation dawns, and he plummets into the canyon below.

It seems I’m not alone.

A third of the UK workforce (34 percent) may have a health and wellbeing issue, with the most common being anxiety, depression and stress, according to a new PwC study. These figures follow a Labour Force Survey that reported in 2015/2016 there was a total of 488,000 cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in Great Britain. That’s a prevalence rate of 1510 per 100,000 workers, or 11.7 million working days lost that year due to the condition. However, these figures perhaps underestimate the size of the problem. Research by the insurer Aviva found that workers in the private sector are three times more likely to work while ill than to ‘pull a sickie’. Sixty-nine percent said they had struggled to work when unwell, compared with 23 percent who had taken off when there was nothing wrong with them. This suggests that at a time when the average number of working days lost due to illness is falling, presenteeism – being in work when you are not fit to work – is a greater problem than absenteeism.

Last year to coincide with World Mental Health Day the TUC published a study that marked stress as the top health and safety concern in UK workplaces. This finding was based on a survey of more than 1,000 health and safety reps around the UK who were asked to identify the hazards at work that most trouble them and their workforces. Seventy percent named stress. This chimes with my own experience as a trade union representative, a role in which I am very often the first informal port of call for colleagues feeling anxious, bullied, harassed and distressed in the workplace.

One common response to stress at work is simply not to talk about it for fear that it be interpreted as a sign of personal weakness. Or it might be considered an indication that an employee is unfit for or incapable of doing their job, with all the consequences that might entail. Employers can be equally reticent on the topic, since it might implicate their own employment practices. Certainly the Aviva report found that employers tend to underestimate the incidents and impact of stress at work. When the issue is addressed it is to it is often confined to questions of workload or work-life balance. Without question the quantity of work we do and the time we get to rest and recuperate is important. But perhaps there is something more fundamental going on at work; something more qualitative. In the contemporary work environment, how many of us feel that the work we do is meaningful to us, personally fulfilling and socially valuable? Alternatively, should we even allow ourselves to aspire to such notions at work? That’s the question I’ve been confronted with recently.


Higher (Pressure) Education

I work in higher education, a sector that has adopted a neoliberal rationality and the implementation of commercial imperatives that are utterly inimical to the aims and objectives of education. For me universities are (or at least should be) repositories of accrued human knowledge with a civic responsibility to serve by increasing and disseminating that knowledge. In this respect, I see myself as a public servant, a role I regard as a privilege. Teaching and research have always felt like a vocation to me, albeit a relatively well remunerated one. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do for living. But over the past six or seven years I’ve had the creeping feeling that my work has been increasingly trivialised and misunderstood. This is a feeling that has coincided with the hike in tuition fees and rising student debt, which has signalled a clear change in how universities conduct themselves.

In July the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that three-quarters of graduates will never repay their debt, which implies that there is a dearth of graduate employment in the jobs market to enable graduates to make good on their loans. At the same time, the pay of university managers has rocketed. An investigation by the University and College Union (UCU) revealed that the average salary package of university Vice Chancellors was £277,834 in the last academic year. This is more than six times the average pay of their staff. However, university managers aren’t the only ones enjoying a big pay day. The Financial Times described the market in purpose built student accommodation (described by investors as PBSAs) as being “on steroids”.

“Private investors have piled in as numbers of students – and the rents they are prepared to pay – keep on rising. The UK PBSA market is now worth about £43bn, and the landlords are no longer universities staffed by well-meaning but slightly distracted academics, but professional student room providers”.

Seen in these terms, it is hard not to conclude that higher education exists as a means for university managers and private landlords to harvest student debt. If you work in higher education and consider it an honourable vocation, then witnessing this exploitation of predominantly young people, and indeed playing your part in that exploitation, isn’t just depressing, it feels like an assault on your very self-worth. You have been pressed into the service of a nefarious system so far removed from the public service and civic virtues you believe in that it is frankly unbearable. On reflection – and although it surprised me at the time – this is what culminated in the episode at my GP’s. What I felt on that occasion was an overwhelming sense of grief; like I’d lost or was losing something that felt fundamental to me, but I couldn’t quite explain what it was.

A few days after being signed off work a concerned old friend told me in the bluntest possible terms that what I was suffering from was alienation, in the Marxist sense, and since most of the working population are afflicted with it, it was only my own sense of profesional middle class entitlement that allowed me to imagine I should be an exception to the general rule. That’s probably true. We are alienated at work because we are forced to sell our labour in order to subsist, to live. As a consequence our work does not belong to us. It is not an act of self-expression. The product of our labour is appropriated and directed by another, the employer. Of course we can take pride in our work, we can strive to feel a degree of satisfaction in a job well done; we can enjoy the remuneration; the status acquired through work, perhaps; but it doesn’t alter the fact that we’ve sold our time and effort to an employer and what we produce is theirs to do with as they will. For the public servant things might be experienced differently. Her work might be in the service of others, but if that changes and she finds herself working, not in the public interest, but for an iniquitous state or the aggrandisement of an elite, then a feeling of alienation shouldn’t come as a surprise.


Self-worth and work

If the Marxist conception of alienation is too abstract for your tastes, you might find American sociologist Richard Sennett’s research more grounded. He has written extensively about people’s relationship to their work; their experience of it and what it means to them. In particular Sennett is sensitive to how our sense of self-worth is bound up in the work we do and his analysis of this across several volumes through the years draws attention to the “triumph of superficiality at work.”

Sennett argues that work in our contemporary economy doesn’t provide what he refers to as a “sustaining life narrative”: that is a biography in which we can locate a sense of pride at a good job well done, and in addition forge bonds of loyalty and purpose. This doleful situation has been achieved, in part, through a preference for short-termism in the work place – the imperative to make a quick buck for impatient shareholders is the bottom line. So employers and corporations invest less and less in in-depth knowledge, expertise and accrued skill or craft, and as a consequence the past achievements of employees are considered obsolete and discarded with indecent and wasteful haste. Sennett argues that it is only an “unusual sort of human being” that can thrive in such a transient, throw-away work environment.

Sennett’s ethnographic approach to his research reveals something beyond employment and productivity statistics. It drills down to reveal how people’s sense of identity and self-worth is intimately bound up in what they do. It achieves this because he encourages people to talk about their work and the place it has in their lives. In The Corrosion of Character, Sennett interviews Rico, a college graduate, son of a janitor, whose life looks like an exemplar of upward mobility and success. Rico is married with kids and runs his own consultancy firm, having previously worked in the computer industry, Silicon Valley. His wife manages a small group of accountants, some of whom work from home, as well as a back office staff located thousands of miles away that she connects to via the internet. Despite the appearance of middle class success, both fear they are “on the edge of losing control of their lives,” a fear built into their professions that are a “flux of networking,” as well as impersonal and flexible working relations. In this context friendship and community develop what Sennett calls a “fugitive quality.” While Rico sees his job as a service to his family he worries that it interferes with those ends. Not in the sense that he doesn’t have sufficient time to spend with his wife and kids. Rather “his deepest worry is that he cannot offer the substance of his work life as an example to his children of how they should conduct themselves ethically.”

The Corrosion of Character was published in 1998, when the contours of what Sennett refers to as “flexible capitalism” were increasingly apparent, but his inquiries into the value ascribed to work predate this, as illustrated in his earlier book, The Hidden Injuries of Class, published in 1972. One of the subjects of that study, Frank Rissaro, from a working class background, left school without qualifications and after a brief spell in the army became a butcher, a job he held for nearly twenty years. Frank was ambitious, specifically he had ambitions to open a butcher’s shop of his own but the capital was beyond his reach. However, a friend introduced him to the branch manager of local bank and Frank went to work there, entering the white collar world. Like Rico almost two decades later, Frank’s story looks like one of upwardly mobile success – a working class boy’s entry into the middle class. But Sennett reveals a more complicated picture. Frank is proud of this working class roots, considering it the grounding that keeps him honest; more honest than he considers his better educated work colleagues at the bank, whom he accuses of shiftlessness; coming to work late, going home early. And he seems ambivalent about his job: “These jobs aren’t real work where you make something – it’s just pushing papers.” If, for Frank, “real work” is the preserve of the blue collar occupations he has left behind, he clearly regards middle class professional life as ephemeral and maybe even swindling. For Sennett, it reveals how Frank’s striving for middle class respectability in the eyes of others has rendered him unable to respect himself.

The Moral Dimension

Both Rico and Frank’s stories reveal that work is not just about subsistence. It has a moral dimension. As I have found to my own cost, to feel ethically compromised or diminished at work; or to feel a loss of self-respect, can be injurious. That is why we need to talk about work beyond the statistics beloved of government press releases and news bulletins. These might reveal something about the economic “health” of the nation but there is no necessary relationship between that and human well-being and flourishing.

Stephen Baker

15 September 2017