This was the title of an article that appeared in the New York Times recently. The surprising, or perhaps unsurprising, thing was that it stayed the ‘most emailed article’ for over a week and is still the second most emailed article in the last 30 days. The article covers research and anecdotal evidence which mirrors our coaching experience over the last 5 years – the way work in white collar industries is organised is simply no longer working. There is too much work, too many distractions, too many meetings and not enough engagement, recognition and meaningful work. If you read the article, bear in mind that the research was based on US companies where employee engagement is much higher at 30%, whereas in Australia it is only 18% (Gallup research).
I would like to quote one statistic and one anecdote from the article to illustrate the point – in a survey of 12,000 white collar professionals worldwide 70% said they did not have regular time to think and 66% said they could not focus on one thing at a time. The anecdote that dumbfounded me was when an accounting firm brought in consultants to help their employees who felt overwhelmed during the busy end of financial year period. They implemented a different way of working – 90min focus periods with 15min breaks in-between and 1 hour rest in the afternoon – and allowed people to go home when they had completed a designated amount of work. These employees got more done, reported lower stress levels and had less staff turnover. So the company rolled this out across the board, right? Absolutely not, because, as one of the leaders said, ‘We just don’t know any other way to measure them, except by their hours’.
So what are the underlying issues that create this disconnect between what is known to work (selecting the best people leaders for management roles, reducing distractions, investing in employee engagement, providing regular feedback and recognition, allowing people to ‘trade’ tasks or self-select for the work they find most meaningful, trust building, rewarding managers and leaders who display care and empathy) and what is usually implemented in the companies we work with? The primary reason is that despite all the rhetoric of recent times employees are not the company’s most valuable asset. No sane person would treat their most valuable asset in the way most companies treat their employees today (largely implicitly, not through malicious intent). The overwhelming evidence is that a company’s most valuable asset are clearly its shareholders and their desire for profit growth that overrides all other concerns.
In addition, companies primarily select people to the top positions who thrive on competition. Once they have out-competed their internal rivals and reached the executive, their focus shifts to competing with other players in the market. Competition requires the player to put aside empathy and care for others. Since the behaviour from the top influences all levels of the hierarchy, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that employee engagement, trust and recognition are not given much more than lip service (e.g. training programs) under these circumstances.
All of this has been known for many years, but in the nineties it seemed that there was a decent chance that employees would become truly valuable and attracting and keeping the very best would make a big difference to a company’s performance. This has not materialised due to two factors – productivity growth through automation and a massive influx of graduates, many with Masters, double degrees or even PhD’s. Our education system has excelled in attracting record numbers of domestic and foreign students to universities and produced more high-quality graduates than most industries need. In addition, the need for white collar professionals is no longer growing as fast (or maybe is already declining) because of the effects of automation and offshoring, which often precedes automation. Bar a few, isolated pockets of talent scarcity employees have again become a disposable resource and their treatment demonstrates that they are not the ‘most valuable’ one. This is even more prevalent in the countries that felt the full force of the GFC, such as most European countries and the US.
The way it looks at this point in time is that companies will continue along this path of largely ignoring employee needs and overloading workers and managers with information and tasks that provide neither meaning nor have a positive impact on productivity. In short, it is likely going to get worse. The reason is that there is no pushback from employees too scared to risk their jobs and career and that no coherent, alternative model for organising work has been put forward to date. Such a model would have to redefine the role of authority and management, in conjunction with a drastic overhaul of how we measure company performance. The latter would require moving beyond a simple profit measure to something much broader based (which includes employee health and wellbeing) and be longer-term focussed. This could only emerge through a broader shift in society, away from the dominant neoliberal trend of recent decades, so it’s not imminent I would venture.
If you are looking for a personal solution to this dilemma that you could implement today, there is much to be said for starting your own business or becoming an independent contractor. This obviously doesn’t work for everyone and every sector, but the trend in this direction has been strong in most industries. As long as you don’t end up in the same chair, doing the same job for less (or more) pay, it should help you with eliminating many of the factors that make you hate work. Alternatively, you might want to consider getting coaching to help you with setting appropriate boundaries, learning to manage up effectively and building a supportive peer network to alleviate some of the main stress factors. We have helped hundreds of people along both these pathways in recent years, with great results.