Why You Hate Work (And Will Continue To)

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath tell us why we hate work. (“Why You Hate Work“, New York Times, May 30, 2014; the “You” in their title article is less inclusive than it appears, for the primary focus of their study is white-collar workers. Still, perhaps there are lessons here to be learned by all.)

Their article has a familiar feel to it: there are several dimensions to employee satisfaction; employees do better and feel better when they are satisfied in those; employers are not sensitive to these spaces of desire; they ignore them, being all too easily satisfied with the fulfillment of work demands.

Put another way: employees are humans with needs; the workplace doesn’t meet them; the workplace-boss-employee relationship is asymmetrical.

Color me surprised.

Schwartz and Porath make recommendations to improve workplace environments: invest in employees; pay them enough; give them breaks; praise them; and so on.

It is tempting to say this is all common-sense, a temptation that finds its grounding in the utterly unsurprising nature of these recommendations. After all, who’da thunk it: humans need rest, adequate wage for labor, a little encouragement?

We have known for a very long time that ‘work’ is a four-letter word. The dichotomies are familiar. Work-bad; leisure-good; weekday-weekend; boss-friend; the list is easily extended (and extendable.) Everybody’s working for the weekend, after all.

A clue to why the Schwartz and Porath study might be cited extensively but almost certainly will not have its recommendations followed–once the initial hubbub following the publication of their Op-Ed in the nation’s leading newspaper has died down–may be found in the fact that while the word “profitability” shows up in their article, “short-term profits”, “shareholders”, “capitalism”, “first-quarter earnings” (and other such gems) do not.

Perhaps you might have guessed where I’m going with this: creating a workplace that keeps employees happy and satisfied has costs associated with it; these costs bite into profits, especially short-term ones;  employee satisfaction, to put it bluntly, is incompatible–economically–with short-term profits and quarterly earning reports; ergo, there is little chance the recommendations for the creation of such workspaces will be implemented.

There is something particularly terrifying about repetition compulsion: the endless recycling of a past, its contours showing up again and again to haunt the neurotic. Modern business is similarly afflicted; it rules over armies of the disgruntled, determine to repeatedly lurch from one past mistake to another, resolved to not make the changes that might palliate the suffering of those in its embrace.

This commentary of mine is incomplete; there is a more thoughtful, historically sophisticated take possible on our understanding (starting, perhaps, with the notion that ‘work’ was done by slaves.) More on that in another post in the near future.

Note: A budding neuroscientist might be interested in conducting an fMRI study in which it would be ascertained which brain centers were activated when subjects viewed the word ‘work’ or were asked to perform tasks that were described as ‘work.’  Performance on the latter could be compared with that of a control group which performed the same tasks not described as ‘work.’

A Tiny Pleasure: Heading Home On Time

Yesterday evening, I took the train to my wife’s place of work at Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center. I was going to drop off my baby daughter at her mother’s office, and then head to the gym to workout. It had been a tiring day as any day of infant daycare invariably is; my wife was going to take over for the rest of the evening. As I arrived at the MetroTech subway station at 5PM, I noticed commuters waiting for the train, waiting to go home; as I walked up the stairs, out into the plaza and into my destination office building, more commuters streamed past me, wearing suits, jackets, formal and semi-formal wear, and a mixture of expressions, some tired, some smiling, others engaged in conversations with co-workers. The workday was done; families and friends awaited; the rest of the day did too.

Somehow, I found this sight absurdly pleasing;  it had been a 9-5 day, and now those who had ‘put in their time’ could put it behind them and move on. Here was visible proof then, that workers could still go home on time, that a life beyond the workday, and not just on the weekends, was possible.

Of course, that same pleasure reminded me that the reason I had had occasion to experience it was that I knew all too well that most workers put in ridiculously long hours at work, that they do not earn overtime or ‘comp’ time for it, that they often do not manage to take advantage of their vacation days, that sometimes falling sick is not an option, and finally, that very often retirements have to be delayed, if not postponed indefinitely.  (This situation is undoubtedly worse in the US than it is elsewhere in the world, though when I hear stories about the Indian corporate world during my trips to India, I’m convinced the US has serious competition there.)

Somehow, bizarrely, too many workers in the US have settled for a situation whereby not only are they working longer hours, they are not compensated for it. Their workplaces are unregulated in the worst possible way: their bosses can command them to come in early, stay late, skip lunches, work on weekends, spread their two weeks annual vacation out over the year so that they become a bunch of long weekends instead, and perhaps to final injury to insult, suggest that they aren’t really sick enough to take the day off. As for ‘personal days’, well, they aren’t.

Workers could change this, of course. They could unionize, bargain collectively as a unit, push back on employer power so that space is made for their needs, their time, their lives. They could ask for paid overtime–in time or money. But most workers in the US have convinced themselves, or have been so persuaded, that organized worker forces flirt with the Antichrist, with all that is good and holy in America, that unions are parasites. So rather than organize themselves and secure for themselves the benefits of a unionized work force, they’d rather stand by and let the remnants of organized labor in this country come under sustained political attack.

And never get home on time.

The ‘Adversarial’ Nature of Unions

One of the strangest objections to the presence of unions in the workplace is that unions make the workplace adversarial, that they introduce conflict into the relationship between the worker and the manager (or between the two classes), that rather than letting workers and management concentrate on maximizing output (or throughput) and enterprise profit, which would then ultimately translate back into prosperity for all concerned, the union imposes an externality, a transaction cost by virtue of its fundamentally oppositional nature.

The so-called ‘adversarial nature’ of the union should not be surprising. Management and workers’ incentives often do not align, especially when the employing entity is not employee owned or incorporated i.e., it is a standard  enterprise where the economic power of capital is concentrated in a small group of owners. The goods to be maximized and minimized–wages and profits for instance–by the parties in this relationship are different and often orthogonal; it is not entirely unexpected that management and workers’ actions would bring them into conflict with each other. This situation is an almost straightforward consequence of the acceptance of two axioms pertaining to such a workplace: a) that it brings together two parties of grossly disparate economic power, with both aiming to maximize their standings in those stakes and b) that this encounter will often be a zero-sum game. Conflict seems inevitable under these circumstances.

(A little historical perspective is useful here. Early hostility to unions from management was systematic; it found a significant legal edge thanks to sympathetic courts that, having internalized the mantra that unions were irritants to markets blamed them for declining profits whenever they occurred. Indeed, the sometimes violent, protracted, and bitter history of labor relations in this country suggests that to note and object to the adversarial nature of unions is to merely note the aggressive posture of one of the two parties in an extended, hostile, and a yet-to-be-resolved conflict: at best it makes note of the obvious, at worst it seeks to obfuscate understanding of the forces that conspire to keep the workplace a space for worker control.)

What is most interesting about this almost-aesthetic distaste which underwrites the objection to the conflict-engendering union–the only one to be indicted of the charge of adversarial behavior–is the contrast it intends to conjure up with an imaginary union-free workplace, one that is productive, low-cost, profit-producing, a harmonious vale of workers and management working peacefully together with shoulders to the wheel. Such union-free workplaces in the real world, of course, now free of the friction created by the presence of the union, almost invariably do poorly on those reckonings of worker quality most beloved of unions: worker job security, inflation-pacing wages with annual raises, safe and regulated workplaces. It turns out that conflict in the workplace might be the price workers and management have to pay if the widespread ubiquity of collectively owned economic entities does not become a reality and the workplace continues to showcase relationships between powerful, capital-owning management and economically precarious worker forces.