Modern Work is Destroying Us

I am not a permanent member of the world of work I’m about to describe. I visit it, sometimes, if I go to a company to run an enlivening workshop, or train workers in confidence-building or presentation skills. Mainly though, my perspective comes from my individual coaching clients, a significant majority of whom come to me because they are suffering at work. Through them, I have some insight into what is happening in modern workplaces, and enough evidence to detect recurring patterns. Contemporary commentators on the subject bear me out. As my natural inclination is towards positivity, it pains me to dwell in miserable territory. But I write this because I want to see change for the better. I know there are good employers out there, inspiring leaders who motivate their teams and invest in good working conditions, and who are doing their very best. My critique is not about them – it’s about a bigger system of values that is not serving people but demeaning and reducing them. What I would like to do is empower workers to ask for, and embody, the change they would like to see happen. But first, the grim stuff…

In the last 30 years, the world of work has changed significantly. The U.K. does not make much anymore; instead, we’re a nation of administrators and baristas. Compared to our parents’ or grandparents’ generations, people work longer hours, have less job security, work in bigger, more impersonal organisations and have less spending power for the big important buys that traditionally provide a foundation for life viz. homes. Too many organisations have toxic cultures which means it doesn’t matter how virtuous or hard-working an individual worker is, they can never reach their full potential or feel sufficiently valued. Job satisfaction is poor. Workers suffer from lack of resources, guidance or support. People change from one unsatisfying job to another at intervals that would have seemed crazy to workers in the 1950’s and 60’s. Work chiefly happens on computers and often involves very little contact with other humans, even those sitting at a desk a metre from you. Lunch hours have gone, to be replaced by eating at your desk, or a grudging half hour from management, in which you rush to a café and back not wanting to be seen to be ‘lazy’. Eyes glazed from staring at screens by day, workers also take their recreation on screens, scarcely looking up to see the sky or idly daydream. We’re constantly on call – colleagues or managers send us emails or texts at home at night or through the weekend and expect swift replies. Our phones accompany us everywhere, potent accessories that rebuke us for not checking them even as we attempt to lounge on the sofa with a loved one, who needs us (as we need them), but is also distracted by their phone. We are short of freedom, of relaxation, of joy and of meaning. Work is destroying us.

The Impact on Workers

Some people can cope with a lot of punishing work demands and bounce back, other people less so, but no human body is made to sit at a desk every day, getting tendonitis in their wrists from moving nothing but their fingers (or indeed, stand on their feet all day, cranking up their adrenaline over and over again to make espressos for impatient desk-workers). Our bodies are simply not evolved to do modern jobs. If a desk-worker who manages to hear the anguished call of their body for some movement then fits some gym-time or jogging into their routine, they attack it as they do work, wanting to push themselves hard and be the best as they rack up the steps on their fitness apps. Coupled with the narcissism encouraged by an image-obsessed pop culture, what could be pleasurable exercise becomes invested with a drive to attainment that compromises its efficacy as it triggers stress about not being ‘good enough’.

The modern workplace is a nightmare for perfectionists who can never reach the sustained excellence they crave because someone in the hierarchy above them will take their efforts for granted, or they’ll fail to distil ALL of the relevant online knowledge into their project or they can’t get their beaten down colleagues to collaborate effectively. Unfortunately, modern work practices demand perfection in us all. Work is obsessed with ‘goals’ ‘targets’ and ‘appraisals’ and must be constantly measured and evaluated instead of given time and space to develop in line with human rhythms. As unrealistic expectations are forced onto workers, it leads to excessive stress and anxiety and the body/mind becomes at severe risk of burn-out, a debilitating state of exhaustion akin to being a broken puppet.

Work is more tiring than ever before, a dreadful irony given developments in technology that were meant to reduce work-hours. Other ironies:

  • In families both parents need to work, but must pay for childcare, cleaners and other services that they could do themselves if they weren’t working so hard. (There has been a big drop in parents reading to their children because parents are too tired – our family lives and the home-education of our kids is being sacrificed for The Work Machine).
  • Workers are so exhausted that they use licensed and unlicensed drugs and excessive food or alcohol to speed them up or calm them down, at significant cost to the body and bank balance. The £3 coffee is everywhere, the £7 large wine is typical (since when did a ‘large’ wine become a normal-sized wine?). And our high streets are full of cafes and takeaways in which we can buy overpriced supposedly healthy food or the quick stimulus of junk food, in lieu of homemade unprocessed fare that we could prepare and eat at less cost and to greater nutritional benefit if we had more time.
  • As a means to pay us to provide for our basic needs, with some spare money for fun, work just isn’t working. Almost two thirds of those in poverty in the U.K. – 8 million people – are in work. Without working tax credits and other state additions, many people couldn’t pay for the absolute minimum needed for functioning life.
  • The quality of the work we do does not match our aptitude: half of all university graduates are working in ‘a non-graduate role’ according to a 2017 survey. People with extraordinary imaginations (that is, everyone) are squandering their creativity in repetitive, hollow tasks. As David Graeber, an anthropologist and critic of modern work says, “Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at.” 
  • The NHS has a shortfall of 100,000 jobs, in which by far the biggest sector is mental health. As work makes us more mentally and physically ill, there are fewer people to care for us. Those who can afford it opt into private medicine, and see therapists and coaches (like me). Those who can’t enter the nightmarish world of NHS waiting lists. (A solution: the state makes it more financially and practically viable to work in the field of health and improve the lives of those who really need it, than in jobs which only really improve the lives of a handful of obscenely rich company owners).

What Workers Need From Work

Workers need a decent living wage, a feeling of belonging, a sense of achievement and meaningfulness. The latter, in other words, is proof that their jobs have positive impact and that they are valuable and important. A recent YouGov survey discovered that 37% of working British adults think their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world. Another 13% were unsure. This is especially worrying given that humans have an innate propensity for finding meaning in what they do. A percentage of those who do think their job has meaning are almost certainly exaggerating the impact their work has in order to stop themselves feeling utterly disillusioned.

It may be that the job is genuinely pointless but if not, one of the chief ways that employees can feel that their jobs are meaningless is that managers are not communicating to them how they are meaningful. In Byzantine organisations with huge hierarchies, it’s easy to see that a worker on a lower rung might be hopelessly out of touch with the effect of their actions. It is hard to picture such places and not think of Orwell or Kafka, writers whose terrifying satires of organisations and systems seem increasingly prescient.

Let’s be more cheerful and imagine an ideal job. It would fit your skills and offer training to help you learn new ones. Sometimes it would be relatively straightforward, sometimes it would challenge you enough to be stimulating and give you the satisfaction of problem-solving.  You would feel that your brain and body were being employed in creative and helpful ways without causing yourself mental or physical ill-health. It would involve civilised work-hours, break-times and holidays, and honour your free time. It would be paid above or in line with what is reasonable in the market. Your managers would be inspiring leaders who treat you respectfully, value your talents and consult you on how to improve the job, the workplace and the product or purpose of the work. You would be given constructive feedback on your work and developed within the job to gain promotion if that is what you want. You would be trusted to take initiative. You would work well with your colleagues, and at least some of them would become friends. You would look forward to going to work. If you had difficulties with work or your personal life which affected your work, your managers would be empathetic and help you to overcome problems by providing resources, support or paid time off. You would know that your work was helping humanity, other living things and the planet and not contributing to the pointless destruction of any of those. When you are old enough to stop working, you would know that your working life was worthwhile, that you had enough money to live on and could enjoy the freedom of not working.

I could go on. You will have different ideas, of course. You may think I haven’t factored in any suffering, but I was thinking about the ‘ideal’ job. Suffering will happen in life, that’s a fact, but why can’t it be lessened in our work? Is the above an impossible dream? If work is meaningless and painful, is it worth doing? (In the increasingly automated future that question will become ever more pertinent).

How to Improve Your (Working) Life

Here are a mixture of suggestions, some radical, some very manageable, some both manageable and radical, that could stop you wasting your life in unproductive and gruelling activity:

  • Find a manager you like and respect and ask for some changes that would make your work more interesting/fulfilling or less knackering/traumatising. If you can’t find a manager you like and respect in your organisation, why are you still there?
  • Cut a deal for a shorter working week. Use your time off to consciously do things that enrich your soul.
  • Band together with your colleagues. Present suggestions for change as a team. If you are lucky enough to have a union, enrol it in helping you.
  • Set harder boundaries. If your contract specifies reasonable work hours, stick to them, with only a very occasional exception if necessary. Refuse to answer work emails at weekends. Take enough time for lunch to source it and digest it comfortably away from your work station (I know I talk a lot about food, but that and sleep are the two things we can’t live without).
  • Take a good look at your incomings and outgoings. Can you live with less money and do more satisfying but less well-paid employment? Are you wasting money on comforts to compensate for your icky job? Can you move somewhere that’s cheaper to live but delivers better quality of life?
  • Stop being defeatist. Often people have power over you because you let them have it. Do not collude in your own disempowerment. If you want to change the way your workplace operates, do something about it. If you genuinely can’t, leave and go somewhere healthier.
  • Observe your own fear. What are you frightened of, really? Is it a life-or-death situation? What’s the worse-case scenario? Is it really as bad as you think? Really? Is your boss or difficult colleague a fairy-tale monster with lashing tentacles and a fire-breathing maw or a human being? Realise that fear is a primitive physical response that may bear very little relationship to the actual danger you’re facing if you challenge the status quo (or just deliver a report late).
  • Go self-employed. If you’re not a lone wolf, do it with other people (take time to find them and make sure you like and respect them enough to give your own ‘office politics’ a flying start). Take it step by step and never fail to appreciate what having control feels like.
  • Come out of your little bubble of despair and look at the bigger picture. Tell employers what you could do for them, and don’t just fit into their specifications. Change your career path entirely – retrain to be a chef or an acrobat. Go and work in another country. Do some volunteer work in a field which interests you, which could lead to paid work. Make your personal life so fantastic that it has a knock-on effect on the day-job. Make your hobby your job. Invent something the world needs.
  • If you think it’s too late for you to change (I can coach you on that) help your children, or other young people you know, to do positive things with their lives. Read your daughters Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls for alternative female role models; give your sons the option of not being alpha males. Know your own values so you can model them for your kids. Let them know about the range of jobs in the world that serve humanity, and if they don’t exist, encourage them to create them.
  • Be the change you want to see in the world. For example, try being incorruptible, compassionate, forgiving, friendly, generous and open-minded. Beats contributing to a world of corrupt, cruel, revengeful, anti-social, mean and bigoted people doesn’t it? Notice when you stray into the dark side. What was the reason for it? Something you can tackle and transform? Acknowledge you’re not perfect but keep noting the effect on others and yourself when you’re a kinder, more understanding and more reliable human being….or the reverse. All of this will impact on your working life. Note: This is a lifelong voluntary practice and will not be formally measured.

Finally – the world of modern work is not your fault. It has been made by forces larger than you – globalization, dishonest governments, world events we can scarcely understand with roots in history before us. You can buckle under the iniquities of it and stay tortured in a job you loathe, or you can try to do something about it. Lay your focus onto your own health, in body and mind – health is power, and you’ll need that to change things. Take some risks and try different approaches towards a new working life until you find something that feels right, most of the time. When you run away from something you don’t like, run towards something that looks promising: don’t stagnate in the middle. Ask other people for help, and be available to help them. Think big – maybe you can help to create a world that functions to serve its inhabitants. Make a plan and take it one step at a time…

Photo: Alison Goldie, Hull 2017


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