Our Work Culture Is Killing Us
Nov 18 2013
Once upon a time, work was something you did in order to fund the rest of your life. It was the pain in the arse that you had to endure for eight hours a day, five days a week and all but two weeks a year in order to pay for your drinks, your drugs, your dad's Christmas present, your dinner and your dignified funeral service. Work was work, leisure was leisure, life was life. From what I can remember from a few episodes of Cold Feet, we were all moderately satisfied with this arrangement.
However, nowadays the lines seem to be blurring. The recession has stolen our contractual hour-long lunch breaks, Facebook photos and drunk tweets have exposed our "emergency dentist's visits" as the hangovers they really are and smartphones have turned every holiday into a working one. Work is staging a coup of our private lives.
You’ve only got to look through any national newspaper’s “work” section to find a slew of horror-stats that’ll send you to the Goa trail before you even get an interview. Five million people are being paid less than the living wage, workplace depression is on the rise, and the man partly responsible for abetting the culture that led to the financial collapse – Sir Hector Sants – has had to quit his job for reasons pertaining to stress. Which is surely proof that not even the bastards have it easy any more.
For me, though, the most telling stat emerged a few months back, when a survey suggested that 72 percent of British workers clock up ten extra, unpaid hours of labour every week. Did I believe the results of this study? No, it was carried out by Travelodge. But then I saw another study, one conducted by the slightly more reputable Trades Union Congress, which suggests that the average British worker – bear that in mind when you read this, the average British worker – does seven hours and 18 minutes of extra, unpaid work every week. It’s a terrifying statistic, one that suggests we've all come to accept a secret code of conduct dictating the way we must work today: for longer than we're meant to, for less pay, with fewer perks and a partisan regard for the company mantra.
Those seven hours and 18 minutes are one thing if you’re an entrepreneur, a human rights lawyer, or a freelance street style photographer. You sign up for one of those gigs, you know you're not going to be striding off home or to the pub at 5.01PM every day. But seeing as most people in post-Thatcher Britain work in the service industry or office admin jobs, what the fuck are they all doing? Shelf-stacking in their own kitchens? Hot-desking the pub? Invoicing their children for services rendered?
Something’s not right here. All around me I see people turning into knot-shouldered flesh cases, their bursting veins wired with so much caffeine that every social interaction is like trying to converse with a PTSD sufferer at a firework display. You'd think that booze might be able to offer some kind of a release, but now even that age-old escape route from the slog could be under threat from a workplace alcohol-testing scheme. The targets of this don't seem merely to be the daytime drunks – who, let's face it, are easy enough to spot – but also the people who dared to have a few drinks the night before. The proposed initiative – which has come from the States – is at least a social equaliser in that it's bound to strike fear into the overstretched hearts of every type of British worker, from your humble parole scheme scaffolder, to your media solutions manager, to the Head of Inequality at JP Morgan.
Of course they're selling it as an attempt to look after their employees. But after driving them to seven hours and 18 minutes of extra, unpaid work each week, does that seem a likely motive? No, clearly it's because hungover people are crapper at their jobs than Mormons. But who cares? Maybe if you’re a crane operator or an easyJet Redeye pilot it's fair enough, but if you can’t have a drink at the end of the day to null the pain of your office job, then what else is there? It’s convenient puritanism for maximising profit.
I'm aware that's not exactly a Marxist reading of the situation, and there are optimists out there who'll say you shouldn't need to drink yourself into oblivion every night to forget about the painful drudgery of your daily existence. But I'm trying to be a realist here, and this is solid proof that employers are looking for dominion over your personal life as well as your professional one.
For me, the primary problem presented by all this seems to be the creeping corporate intrusion into our private lives and the lack of respect they show for them. I’ve heard all sorts of personal anecdotes about call centres timing your piss breaks and people’s wages being frozen when they’ve been seriously ill that reveal a shocking inhumanity at the heart of this culture.
The reasons for this humanitarian decline in the British workplace aren't entirely clear. But for my money, it's probably something to do with the moment that computers became cheaper than humans, and thus employers stopped treating their staff as IRL people and more like oxygen-run gadgets built to advance their own megalomaniac tendencies. It was always like this in the media, where jobs were scarce and workers were willing to push themselves to the limit so they could attain some kind of eventual glamour – a pay-off for the erosion of their real lives. But now that people are being forced to dance to "Get Lucky" for a job at Curry’s, and 4,000 people will queue outside a new shopping centre in Hampshire in the hope of landing a job there, suddenly it's OK to treat everyone like shit, because hey, if you don’t want to do it then somebody else will for a much lower wage.
Perhaps this is Thatcher's most dreadful legacy; the way that workers as well as workplaces have been forced into competition. While the bosses might still talk about "teamwork" at office paintballing weekenders, many people are basically encouraged to shaft each other at every available opportunity. The modern British workplace is The Office reimagined by Niccolo Machiavelli.
Not that we seem particularly willing to engage in that kind of knife-fight. It's clear that my generation is hurtling towards a mass burnout – a generational star death, if you will. Once upon a time it was thought that only the most stressed, the least mentally durable, the most booze and drug prone were the people who quit their jobs to manage organic goose farms in rural Sussex. Now that seems to be the dream for almost everybody I know. Maybe my friends are too caught up with ego and hedonism to really commit to such a dream, but I think that a massive proportion of young workers are so disillusioned either by their prospects or the working environment that nobody even wants to be the boss any more. “Let’s just get paid for a bit, and then play it by ear” seems to be everyone’s motto these days. Ironically, in such a fiercely capitalist society, ambition seems in massive decline.
Not only does this make us profoundly unhappy, stressed people, it also sends us slightly insane. We spend our weekends fighting each other in pubs in shopping precincts, fuelled on bad, cheap drugs and lagers that have more chemicals in them than the Pacific. Take a look at most British workers' extra-curricular activities, and you get the sense that people aren't just trying to relax at the end of a week, they're trying to release. We used to take the piss out of the office guy going nuts in a bar in his sweat-drenched suit because he'd worked three times as many hours as he'd slept that week. Now, come Friday, we're all that guy, intent on recreating Falling Down with Smirnoff Ices instead of Uzis.
People need to reclaim their real lives and remind their employers that they're only paid for the hours they do. They need to let them know that, as keen as a newer employee might be, they won't be as good as someone who already knows the ropes. You don't have to ask for the world, just for some basic decency to be applied to your mid-term contract assessment.
More than anything, we need to stop defining ourselves through our work. Your friends and family aren’t going to be talking about that great presentation you pulled out of the bag when you’re wired up to a ventilator at St Thomas’s. Because there are no LinkedIn connections in the afterlife. I’m not saying you have to storm your Managing Director’s office and send him to a Siberian work camp, but just remember that work is work, and life is life. And if they fire you, just sue them into the ground for unfair dismissal.
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