It’s work, Jim, but not as we know it

With the pressure to succeed and a thriving ‘presenteeism’ culture, it’s no wonder mental health problems are linked to overwork. But experts predict a nightmare ahead for HR as the balance of power shifts in employees’ favour

Ichiro Oshima was only 24 years old when he committed suicide. He had been working for Dentsu, the biggest advertising agency in Japan – and the world – for just 16 months.

But he was working so hard, his family told the Japanese Supreme Court, that he had not taken one day off in that period and that, on average, he was sleeping between 30 minutes and two hours a night. By the time he killed himself, he was setting three separate alarm clocks to make sure he would wake up for work.

Oshima’s story is not that unusual in Japan – roughly three bereaved families a month start some form of legal action against employers they say are working staff to death. The phenomenon is so famous that a best-selling book was published on the subject called Shinu-hodo Taisestsuna Shigoto-tte Nan des ka (For What Did You Work To Death?)

As the Japanese have always seemed to us Westerners to take work a little too seriously, such a trend might be tragic but probably comes as no surprise. However, this is no longer just a Japanese affliction – the Americans now work 77 hours a week, more than the Japanese. And even in the UK, the TUC estimates that two million of us regularly work on our days off.

The Law Society noted in a recent report that one law firm actually encouraged staff to sleep on the premises so they didn’t waste time going home.

The pressure on everyone, but especially knowledge-based workers such as the unfortunate Oshima, to work and to be seen to work – what the TUC’s senior employment rights officer Sarah Veale calls "presenteeism" – is only one symptom of a system which, in "soft" human terms, does not always seem to be working. It’s not often a case of unscrupulous employers, but it only takes one person who is quite ambitious to decide they’re going to be first in and first out and that sets the norm," Veale says. "And bad managers use that as a substitute for properly monitoring performance. What they should be doing is asking why that person has to be there at all hours."

American social critic Jeremy Rifkind, researching his book The End Of Work, found that US parents spent 10 hours less a week with their children in 1986 than in 1960. While there is, as yet, insufficient evidence to suggest a link between modern employment patterns and the growth in mental illness, the World Health Organisation estimates that half a billion people suffer from some form of mental illness and in the US, where these pressures have been felt for the longest, depression is expected to be the second largest cause of death and lost productivity after heart disease by 2020.

Flexible working, shorter hours, work-life balance – these are no longer the sole concerns of trade unionists. Homeworking is a reality for 20,000 BT staff, while flexible working is standard at companies such as Dixon’s Internet arm Freeserve, although few companies go quite as far as the Belgian printing company which lets its staff work two 12-hour shifts a week at weekends.

Bettina von Stamm, who runs the Innovations Exchange at the London Business School, says, "As the war for talent gets even hotter, one weapon companies will use to persuade people to work for them is the ability not to work when they feel like it."


At home at work


At the same time, some US psychologists have noted that some of their patients don’t want to go home. "They start talking about their company as ‘we’ as if it was a partner," says Melanie Morris, of Morris Associates in Los Angeles.

"I just didn’t get it initially, thinking work couldn’t be this important to them. But I realised many of them felt more at home at work where they felt challenged and appreciated. And it becomes a vicious cycle – they feel good at work so they invest more time in it and so they enjoy home less because when they do return they feel guilty."

Some US social psychologists are already talking about work as it if is some new form of religious cult. Ironically, this irrational attachment to the workplace has only been strengthened by the efforts of some well-meaning US employers to change their workplaces to incorporate shopping malls, day care centres and gymnasiums. Veale believes other companies will go the other way. "Smart employers will lock their offices at weekends or make sure the lights can’t be switched on so that people cannot come back to work even if they want to."

At the same time, for those who aren’t psychologically dependent on the company in its physical form, the Third Industrial Revolution – as the Internet revolution is now, rather pompously, billed – could provide an opportunity to change their lives for the better in ways they would previously have thought possible only through a win on the Lottery. Depending on which prophet you listen to, the Internet could enrich millions, impoverish other millions and change the balance of power between employer and employee. Instead of companies saying why you should work for us, candidates will be saying to them, "Come on, convince me, why I should work for you?"

Industrial Society director Will Hutton shares some of von Stamm’s optimism. He believes the Internet and especially the network "mean that if you’re any good at what you do, you will be able to decide who you work for, how you work for them and when you work for them".

He adds, "You may not even have careers in the sense that we understand it; you’ll have episodes where you’ll work for different companies, often at the same time. How the media runs today, with porous organisations and freelance contractors, will be how many people work in the future."

With every trend there is a counter-trend and while technology may enable millions to telecommute, it may also make millions of others redundant. Indeed, Hutton says that at first that is precisely what will happen. "There’s no doubt that the networking revolution will, at first, add another layer of inequality to the layers which are already there."

Bear in mind that according to the Industrial Society’s report on free workers, the pay gap between rich and poor in the UK had already widened by the end of the 1970s to its widest since the early 1800s. In the US, where more than half the nation will soon be on-line, a survey found that 12 per cent of workers fear their job will become technologically redundant.

Perhaps still more depressing, this fear is based mainly on an apprehension of what might happen with the Internet and computers. The media and the general public seem to have forgotten the other great automating force, robots, probably because they have so far failed to live up to the hype, along with videoconferencing and voice recognition.

Over the next decade, however, Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, says, "Clumsy robots will be able to navigate in schools, homes, hospitals and factories, and by 2010 these robots will start to be replaced by machines that learn from their mistakes."

There’s nothing wrong in robots doing repetitive, menial, tasks. After all, those who work on assembly lines are often quoted as saying, "Sometimes I felt just like a robot…. We do 32 jobs per car, 48 units an hour, eight hours a day so 32x48x8, that’s how many times I push that button."

So by all means use industrial robots to replace humans behaving like robots but, as Kaku, says, "Is the computer going to create enough wealth to go round?"

The evidence from the US, where productivity is currently growing at twice its historical average of 2 to 3 per cent a year – and quicker than at any time since the 1960s – suggests the answer may, eventually, be yes.

Hutton is cautiously optimistic, saying, "After that initial increase in inequality, there will be a catch-up. IT will create jobs in manufacturing with the production of laptops and mobile phones, and new jobs will emerge. Who would have predicted 10 years ago, for example, that 2 per cent of the British workforce would be working in call centres?"

This may be unsettling for many who have come to regard the post-Industrial Revolution society as the norm. Even the normally e-friendly Guardian greeted the rise of call centres with the rather grim headline, "We used to make ships, now we make calls". Still, with the number of call centres growing by 10 per cent a year, those getting jobs in them probably don’t share the Guardian’s sense of pathos.

But Hutton adds one caveat: whatever jobs are created may well be even more insecure than jobs are now. "It will be an immediate thing. Suppliers will bid for contracts over the Internet. It will be boom! You’ve got the contract, so do the business. Or bust! You haven’t got it so you won’t get that job after all. Can we react that fast and can we cope with that kind of uncertainty? And are the systems in place, can we make childcare arrangements, or whatever we need to do, to do the work?


Uncertain life


"It’s going to be a much more uncertain life, and we’re all going to be taking out insurance against redundancy, hardship or putting more into our pensions. And partly because of all this, but also the demographics, we’ll probably also be working longer, into our 70s."

He adds, "And that, I think, is where the Government is giving out all the wrong signals. We are entering an age where society needs more social insurance, not less, to hold it together."

Indeed, full employment – another government goal – no longer looks like the unquestionable good it once did. We already have virtual full employment in some parts of the South East, but surveys also show that British workers claim to be the most miserable in any of the top industrialised nations.

In corporate America, cynicism about work has fuelled demand for books like the Dilbert series. Management guru Tom Peters, author of such books as In Search Of Excellence, has recognised the threat and declared metaphorical war on Dilbert with his "Work matters!" campaign.

The era of change that society is about to enter is so immense and so unpredictable that it takes all of the journalistic evangelism of can-do business magazines such as Fortune and Fast Company to sell this as the revolution we’ve all been waiting for. And few pundits have even begun to factor in what happens when companies try to integrate cynical, Generation X kids whose attitude to work has been coloured by what they see as their parents’ workaholism.

"If you look at the whole of human history, work as we know it today – going to offices and factories from nine to five – is not the norm at all, it’s a blip." says James Burke, the science broadcaster.

"We’ve spent far longer farming in small villages than we have in dark, satanic mills. It may be that we will go back to that kind of small community life, where the people we socialise with are those in our immediate surroundings, rather than those who just share an office with us."


Predictions forgotten


The wonderful thing about predicting the future is that by the time it becomes the present, everyone has forgotten the predictions you made in the dim and distant past. Here we are in the year 2000 working – or feeling as if we’re working – harder than ever before, when, according to George Bernard Shaw, we should have been putting in only two hours a day at the office as far back as 1980.

But if we fast-forward 50 years, how different will work really be? Some changes will be tactical, others strategic. The much predicted shift to homeworking and telecommuting will finally happen and is, indeed, already happening faster than many people realise. Len Tondel, chairman of the Home Business Alliance, says, "One in seven British workers already work from home. That is not as many as some of the stupid forecasts people made, but it does mark the biggest shift in industrial society since the 1750s."

Another small, tactical, change will be the universal adoption of on-line recruiting. IT giant Cisco already hires 62 per cent of its staff over the Net and has cut the time taken to fill a job from 113 days to 45. But other possible changes will be much bigger and the contrasts will be acute and possibly dangerous.

In the knowledge-based industries, the skills shortage may become so acute that further restrictions on the import of foreign labour – the US and UK have relaxed rules for IT-related skills and Germany, which is 150,000 software engineers short, may do the same – become inevitable.

Globalisation of the labour market is slowly becoming a reality. For example, although IBM is one of America’s most famous businesses, soon more than half of its staff will be employed outside the US.

There may also be a massive boom in cross-border telecommuting and, as Microsoft is already showing in India, investment by multinationals to bring their workplaces closer to an available (and in this case lower cost) workforce.

At the same time, there will be massive migratory pressure from the old Communist states.

"Although I think those who predict the rise of workers who have no allegiance to a particular country are forgetting all we know of human nature," says von Stamm, "I can see a situation where people are so desperate that they’ll do anything to move."

The most shocking evidence of that desperation came to light when almost 60 Chinese illegal immigrants were found dead in a container lorry in Dover earlier this summer.

Nomadology is now a pseudo-science and there are those academics, including the famous orientalist Professor Edward Said, who say nomads will influence society much more than, say, settled homeowners. And with computer scientist Jaron Lanier predicting that "you’re going to have to live while a billion people starve" this suggests that the desperation will only grow.

Such acute and painful contrasts will be reflected even in advanced economies where there will be jobs you’ve probably never even heard of. Here’s a tip from the US Department of Labor: there’ll be a big demand for "bus aides" in the next decade. (To find out what bus aides are you’ll have to read part two of this series on the future of work.)


Different experience


And for those who have jobs, work may be a completely different experience. Von Stamm says, "Work may actually be something you do at home on your computer whereas you’ll go to work or the office, to belong to a kind of social club, to chat things over with your colleagues."

You may not be working nine to five either, which could be good, but could also be bad. "The lines between work

and private lives will continue to blur," says Hutton.

While optimists always say that, hey, in the 24/7 world you can work the hours that suit you, your ability to go windsurfing on a whim may be diminished by the knowledge that through the magic of IT your employer may know where you are at all times.

The idea of indulging a windsurfing whim may seem like just another example of the deep craziness which permeates the new economy, but as Andy Law, chairman and co-founder of ad agency St Lukes, says in the Harvard Business Review, "Most dotcoms are unhappy places to work. They’re so old-fashioned, they’re set up along the model that was established by Henry Ford."

But how many of the world’s human resources will be working for companies? Gerhard Schulmeyer, chief executive officer of Siemens Nixdorf, famously remarked, "The corporation exists because it is a place where the individual can do what they’re good at, at a lower cost than he could do it alone." That logic certainly applies to steel mills but Internet start-ups can be founded on a few credit cards.

Managers are already scrabbling to find the new, new thing which will make companies attractive. To Tom Peters, it’s the "wow!" of being challenged on exciting new projects; to companies in Silicon Valley it’s because every employee gets a BMW. But three other factors have been identified – the company is (or should be) an intellectual meeting place as von Stamm suggested; a guarantee that the people you work with are good (after all, in an information economy full of road warriors, have you got the time to make a shrewd judgement?) and because the company insures employees against the ups and downs of this brave new world.

The fashionable theory at this nanosecond in time is to treat employers as investors, only instead of investing money with your company, they are, as disgruntled employees will often say, "giving you the best years" of their lives.

So Charles Handy, who helped found the London Business School, predicts that employees will be more important than ever. "With outsourcing, companies are stripping back to the core, so those who are left will usually be competent and they won’t want someone else deciding their destiny."

There are two things almost everybody agrees on. First, that even if the word "job" – which is, in its current sense, a mere 300 years old – becomes obsolete, work will still be the way most of us define ourselves. "Unless something drastic happens to human nature, that will always be the first question we’re asked at a party," says Veale.

Second, that some people, the smart and the lucky who have the right skill sets, will be the most prized asset in corporate life. They’ll start to be the recipients of the kind of golden hellos previously reserved for fat cats in the City and at recently privatised utilities. Yes, that old cliché that "people are our most important asset" will finally come true. But not for everybody.

For HR managers, the future sounds remarkably like a nightmare. If they’re not outsourced, they’ll be helping companies fight harder for a smaller pool of valued staff, working at companies that recruit faster (and usually on-line), having to devise and monitor a bewildering complexity of flexible working arrangements, short-term contracts and perks and benefits. But at least they won’t be replaced by a robot. Not, according to Kaku, until at least 2056, anyway.

 


The jargon

Brain lords


Right-wing American term to describe Internet billionaires such as Bill Gates who will have information and wealth at their fingertips in the information economy of the 21st century. Below them, according to a theory devised by an influential Republican think-tank, will be wealthy cyber yuppies, menial workers (or cyber serfs) and, finally, the Lost People who cannot afford to join the IT revolution.


Cybership


Term for those who see themselves as citizens of an e-community rather than a geographical or national community. For example, wired-up farmers in Gloucestershire may have more in common with their counterparts in Tennessee than with car workers only a few miles down the road in Swindon.


E-immigrants


Internet-friendly term for cross-border telecommuters who are starting to infiltrate IT and engineering. For example, a San Francisco-based on-line service company expects to employ about 10,000 support staff in India by 2003. As far as the customer is concerned, though, that service is supplied locally. Increasingly, telecommuters will become free agents working for several companies in several countries at the same time.


Empowerment


Popular management term which now just seems so 20th century. Andy Law, chairman and co-founder of ad agency St Lukes, says, "It implies that someone has to empower someone else. So empowerment reinforces the very hierarchy it is supposed to replace." Delete empowerment from your managerial vocabulary and use "ownership" instead.


Free workers


l Industrial Society term for a type of worker who thinks loyalty is for wimps and, having learnt from the white-collar redundancies of the 80s/90s, sees employers as contractors.


Karo-jisatsu


Japanese term meaning "suicide from overwork". Since a test case earlier this year, workers’ families have been able to sue employers through the courts if they have put pressure on employees to overwork instead of hiring new staff to soak up the extra load.


Marginless lives


Lives, often where both parents are working, where there is no margin for error or accident where any delay can lead to some degree of catastrophe.


Roadkill


Term for those jobs which are set to disappear on the information superhighway. Current favourites: estate agents, Hollywood stuntmen and women (most stunts will be created on computers) and stockbrokers. You can normally find a reason to argue that the superhighway will destroy or damage any occupation or profession you dislike.


Time sovereignty


The new spin on work-life balance is an attempt to get away from the image of people juggling the separate lives of work and home. The issue for employees, particularly those in knowledge-based industries, is "Are you in control of your time?". There are 750 time management books on Amazon if you’re not. (Time management tip: You don’t have the time to waste reading time management books).

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