Why does working life require so many surveys? Is it because there are
simply more issues that need surveying, asks Stephen Overell
I propose a survey. I would like to know what proportion of media stories
about the subject of work are derived from surveys. Five out of 10, maybe? Six
out of 10 in slow weeks?
The survey acts as a social mirror, mesmerising people with their own
reflections, while at the same time giving statistical credence to feelings
that would otherwise remain a hunch.
Ergo, half of the UK’s workforce meet their long-term partner at work (Office
Angels); half of British workers suffer from worsening stress levels
(International Stress Management Association); 49 per cent of successful
American career women mourn being childless (Baby Hunger by Sylvia Ann
Hewlett); 80 per cent of small businesses are dissatisfied with the volume of
employment legislation (Federation of Small Businesses)É the list is endless.
Surveys, of course, are not always honest attempts to gauge what people
really think. Often, they are used to painlessly inject a message into the
bloodstream of public consciousness; or worse, used to sell anxieties for which
the survey-commissioner has solutions.
Like satellites orbiting the earth, campaigns and bodies whose very
existence relies on being noticed now encircle the world of work. How better to
electrify public concern than by showing that a particular workplace evil is
already of massive concern to the public?
There is a secondary worry, too. The downpour of surveys can distort and
over-simplify policy questions.
For example, on 8 April 2002, a Work Foundation report found that
satisfaction at work had plummeted over the past decade and that this was in
turn harming productivity.1 The foundation has a slick press operation and it
quickly solidified into fact that work was definitely getting worse. Only in a
handful of outlets and the specialist press like Personnel Today, was it
pointed out that this survey contradicted most others.
The CIPD has equally pristine findings that two out of three people are
fairly satisfied at work and work satisfaction is static.2
The UK’s premier expert on measuring work satisfaction, Andrew Oswald,
professor of economics at Warwick University, has also found work satisfaction
to be flat. It does not mean anyone is wrong, just that the surveys have
reached contradictory conclusions.
On the other hand, it is good that work is so well surveyed: the more
information, the better. Public opinion matters, and all of the surveys listed
above say something interesting and arresting about work (to some of us,
anyway). It’s easy enough to discriminate between the serious and the trivial,
the rigorous and the flaky, the self-interested and the public-spirited.
Quality, as ever, will out.
For journalists, meanwhile, surveys are easy copy. They don’t take much
polishing to get a serviceable story; they furnish striking headlines; provide
a simple route into complicated issues; and, it should be said, are often a
good read, too.
But back to my survey. My survey would not be an honest project of finding something
out, but an attempt to back up my hunch that the workplace is surveyed so often
because it generates more new messages, ideas, suggestions and issues than
other parts of life.
It sounds preposterous, I know, but I am not alone. In the quasi-academic
field of ‘social epidemics’ or ‘meme-theory’, which examines how ideas catch on
in society, the workplace is the favourite arena of discussion.
According to the consultancy Brand Genetics, work is uniquely connective and
viral ideas tend to replicate rapidly through workplace networks.3 Hence
management fads, which come and go with far greater frequency than, say,
Another result is the spread of ‘mass psychogenic illnesses’ such as
executive burn-out. And the speed with which things take hold at work means a
constantly fluctuating currency of new issues – work-life balance, creativity,
corporate social responsibility, servant leadership, bullying at work, desk
rage and so on – all supported by surveys.
Among management fads, business process re-engineering (BPR) is the most
famous example. Precisely why the ber-fad of the 1990s caught on as it did has
been the subject of several dense books. Given the post-recessionary mood of
the early 90s, BPR had a kind of macho appeal. But that does not really explain
Re-engineering the Corporation, the movement’s manifesto, sold 250,000
copies in the first three months. By 1994, a survey found that 68 per cent of
British companies were doing it.4
Professor Price, of Sheffield Hallam University, argues that
"epidemic" is the right word. Price says: "There were other
ideas dealing with white-collar productivity competing for space in the
management conversation of the early 1990s. For the pioneers, re-engineering
was highly successful, but as the idea replicated, it became more virulent and
less beneficial. Probably 70 per cent of re-engineering programmes were a
In The Tipping Point, a best-selling book by New Yorker journalist Malcolm
Gladwell, successful social epidemics like BPR are a mixture of the people, the
infectious agent itself and the environment.
The message has to be ‘sticky’ (memorable). But to infect its way into a
cultural mood, it needs a helping hand from ‘mavens’ (pundits, information
brokers), ‘connectors’ (people who know people) and ‘salesmen’ (persuaders).
And then, finally, the context in which the message is sown needs to be
fertile. The workplace is a veritable Eden for such things.
It is true that thinking of new issues as ‘epidemics’ carries the risk of
trivialising serious concerns and that is not the intention. But what the
social researchers have usefully captured is a sense there is something about
working life that throws up new messages, concerns and possibilities with
astonishing regularity. Why is that? Maybe it is because work is an emotional
subject that is also a highly technical subject, a subject where individual
concerns overlap with corporate ones; because what people do has a bearing on
who they are. Whatever. News is increasingly driven by surveys and surveys are
driven by issues. Surveys multiply.
1 Press release; www.theworkfoundation.com/newsroom
2 Public and Private Sector Perspectives on the Psychological Contract,
3 www.brandgenetics.com: interview
with director Paul Marsden
4 Survey by Price Waterhouse, taken from The Witch Doctors by John
Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Heinemann, 1996
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