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Modern life is rubbish

December 16, 2011


Modern Life is Rubbish

On September 11, 2009, a French woman who worked for France Telecom sent an email to her father, in that email she wrote,

I can’t take the new reorganization. I prefer to die.

Then she threw herself out of a fourth story office window. This employee had worked at France Telecom for nine years. After constant re-organisations this woman found it too much to cope, her suicide was the 23rd at France Telecom in 18 months. It caused a national outcry in France, but in fact the story traveled far and wide – why? Because the spate of work related suicides had touched a raw nerve and a very real modern day issue – the corrosive nature of work in the early 21st Century. Workers broken not by hard manual labour but by the relentless demands of the modern day company, and the crucifying effects of management and office culture. Prior to that another worker from France Telecom killed himself on Bastille Day – 14th July.

According to the Guardian, he had left a note stating that work was the “only reason” he killed himself. He described a living hell of “management by terror”, and constant stress. “I have become a wreck,” he wrote. Imagine this scenario, workers on call-centre floors having to ask permission to go to the toilet or file a written explanation because they were 60 seconds late from lunch. Senior staff bullied and being repeatedly forced to move job.

Simon Caulkin, writing his last ever post for the Observer, drew his own conclusions on the upsides (few) and downsides (many) of modern ‘management,’

Across both public and private sectors what readers experienced as “management” was pervasively problematic. It just wasn’t what it said on the tin. Wherever they looked, readers found a glaring discrepancy between “official” and “unofficial” versions, between talk and walk. The talk was empowerment, shared destiny, pulling together: the walk was increasing work intensity, tight performance management, risk offloaded on to the individual. The talk was flat organisations: the reality, centralisation and a yawning divide between other ranks, required to minimise their demands for the greater good, and a remote officer class whose rewards had to soar to motivate them to do their job. Employees were the most valuable asset – until costs had to be cut. Repeated mis-selling and other scandals demonstrated it certainly wasn’t the customer who was king.

Somewhere along the line the edifice of management had been turned upside down – it was shareholders who had become monarch, their courtiers lavishly rewarded managers whose MBA courses had taught them to manage deals and numbers, not things or people. Management had suffered a reverse takeover. Finance annexed reality, cost ousted value, the means became the end.

For many, our industrial society brutalises its work force, according to BUPA we lose 10.5 million work-days in the UK every year due to stress in the workplace, and 17% of the workforce find their jobs extremely stressful. A woman working for a regional newspaper group in the UK as an editor was informed that she would become editor of 3 newspapers, and was then told she now had to manage 5 newspapers. Feeling overwhelmed she visited her GP, who told her that she was so stressed (read stuck to the ceiling) she was proscribed to take at least 4 weeks sick leave. Her boss on learning of her GP’s advice warned her that anytime taken off would be a career changing decision – read don’t bother coming back. Nice.

In an interview conducted by the Financial Times, published on 18th September, Christophe Dejours, professor at the Conservatoire des Arts and Métiers and author of a book on suicide at work, says workplace suicides were largely limited to the agricultural sector until the 1990s. Today they occur across “very different social sectors from hospitals to school, construction, the electronics industry, banking”. In, The Corrosion of Character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism. Richard Sennett describes how the sense of hopelessness, and isolation, deconstructs our character in the workplace, with ultimate tragic consequences.

For Sennett, “character” is defined as the capacity to construct and keep commitments – not just in marriage, but also in friendships, communities, and workplaces – and the ability to provide continuous, coherent narratives of personal experience. And whether we call it Extreme Capitalism, or, Supercapitalism, in Sennett’s view, the “unfettered capitalism” that describes our recent history in labour markets, work schedules, institutions, and technology – renders “character” impossible. Contemporary capitalism demolishes the social and cultural foundations of “character,” and upholds instead the punishing ideal of incessant change.

Do read the post:  The rise of the HumanOS.

As we explain that faced with organisational and institutional failure we are connecting up to and across each other to create a new human operating system that will challenge existing sources of power and control.

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