Just say no to social work

For the sake of your sanity, the proposal that employers should do more to tackle domestic violence ought to be resisted

How far should the embrace of the employer towards the employee extend?

Many years ago, employers reconciled themselves to the idea that they ought to support workers financially through their old age, to pay them when they were sick, and not to put them at unnecessary risk of injury. More recently they have come to terms with the obligation to help workers have and maintain families, to provide them with certain standards of living, to re-organise their workplaces around disabilities, and that it is their duty to promote desirable social attitudes – equality, for example – while discouraging undesirable ones, such as racism.

Today, most employers also recognise that it is up to them to ensure that workers behave nicely towards one another, that they should be tolerant of inconveniences, such as funerals and house moves, and that in general they need to consider the ’emotional well-being’ of their charges. Naturally, there is some way to go. Plenty of employers have twitchy flashbacks to when the employment relationship was more of a fling. Yet it seems an undeniable fact that the embrace is bigger, and some might say, rather wetter, than it was 50 years ago.

Indeed, it is now so big, it is hard to say what is a ‘work issue’ and what is a ‘social issue’. On the whole, this is a very good thing. To the extent that sociologists have fun, they have always had great fun lampooning the idea that employment could be isolated from a social context. Work is a social activity, occurring within a nexus of social relations, they say, and what happens at work has profound consequences for society at large.

Furthermore, work itself is a social construction: the actions to which we arbitrarily attach the word ‘work’ are frequently the same as those we call ‘leisure’ – DIY, for instance, or reading. The categories of ‘economically active’ and ‘economically inactive’ have nothing to do with activity, and everything to do with the formality of arrangements under which people do them. As well as being an economic necessity, work is the arena in which individuals and societies develop.

Looking back, it is a relief that successive governments have never paid too much attention to the jeremiads of employers. The sociologists are right. Work and society cannot be separated. Votaries of corporate social responsibility like to talk about ‘a licence to operate’. But much the same point was made more eloquently by RH Tawney, the historian and godfather of modern social democracy: “Few tricks of the unsophisticated intellect are more curious than the na•ve psychology of the businessman, who ascribes his achievements to his own unaided efforts, blissfully unaware of the social order without whose continuous support and vigilant protection he would be but a lamb bleating in the desert.”

So does it follow, then, that every social issue is also a work issue? It is getting hard to resist this conclusion. Drugs, alcoholism, and violence have all made the inevitable jump, as employers formulate expanding lists of policies and protocols. There are invariably good reasons in each case. But there comes a point when the slide towards locating all social ills in the workplace ought to be resisted, because it is beginning to border on the preposterous.  

According to Jacqui Smith, the deputy women’s minister, employers need to do more to tackle domestic abuse. A government-sponsored report recently claimed that £3bn was lost to the economy because of domestic violence. Employers “must take it as seriously as we [ministers] do,” she said. Victims charity Refuge argues that this could mean “creating an environment that encourages those experiencing abuse to seek help, or establishing an internal domestic violence policy and appropriate procedures”.

What is it with this desire to turn everything into an employment problem? Why is it better to respond to a personal crisis that spills into the workplace as a corporate issue, rather than a human one? It is a curious reflection of the omnipotence of corporations that it is thought they can help reduce a social ill through the creation of a work environment and the penning of a procedure. People can help in these circumstances. Employers cannot. Domestic violence is, except in the rare cases when the warring spouses are also colleagues, as much an employment issue as adultery or insomnia.

So where is the line is to be drawn, if at all, between the social realm and the world of work? If work and society cannot be separated, must every social problem be an employment problem?

I do not think so. Victims of domestic abuse do not suffer on account of their status as an employee. This is where the line should be drawn. Where  entrenched social problems bear directly on the employment relationship, they are also employment issues; discrimination of whatever type must therefore count, as must in-work poverty, as must passive smoking, as must the difficulties of balancing a career with a family. Where the connection is remote, indirect, or rather tenuous, then employers should, with a clear conscience, try to leave private people to their private lives – even if it occasionally costs them a bit of money.

Domestic violence, eating habits, obesity, drinking, sexual deviancy – in fact, pretty well everything employees do or endure in their own time – should be made redundant as workplace problems. They concern citizens, not employers.

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