It is time we rid ourselves of the notion that work somehow robs us of our true lives and instead acknowledged the personal growth and satisfaction that comes from a job well done, David Sharp argues
15 October 2004
Sometimes it seems that the only two four letter words we're not allowed to utter at work these days are "sick" and "days". Such is our abhorrence of sick days that in the last six months alone the subject has twice made it onto the front pages of national newspapers thanks to the tangles in which both Tesco and BA found themselves.
In August BA came unstuck when thousands of passengers found themselves delayed as a result of staff shortages caused by a mixture of low morale, chronic absenteeism and high staff turnover. On one day alone 20 out of 180 terminal staff simply failed to show up for the morning shift, throwing the booking-in systems into chaos and leaving thousands of holiday-makers stranded.
Earlier in the year, Tesco had tried to introduce a new system to deal with the problems associated with sick days. The company developed a pilot scheme to explore whether they could reduce the number of sick days by offering workers extra holiday or benefits if they did not take days off.
More controversially it also floated the idea of only giving sick pay to people who were off for more than three days and could provide a doctor's note.
In both cases the media backlash was immediate and savage. Yet both employers appear to have been unusually enlightened about their industrial relations over a number of years, and both have consistently taken steps - sometimes bold and innovative ones - in the pursuit of good working conditions for their staff. So why are both now under pressure to justify their innovative approaches to the circling media? Why is BA, the company responsible for providing olive groves and indoor streams for its employees at Waterside, being portrayed in the press as some kind of feudal bully?
Unfortunately, it seems to be a sign of the times. The contemporary received wisdom is that workers are fragile creatures, only at work to provide the money to fund the reality that exists outside the workplace - the reality of family and fun.
Little wonder that management practices have become almost unbearably fluffy, a fact that is reflected in the number of initiatives organisations feel obliged to introduce to keep their prized knowledge workers happy. These can range from flexible working practices to shiatsu massage at desks. The very working environment has been transformed. Many offices I visit now are full of domestic furniture, play areas and gyms, trees, streams, restaurants and bars. And it's all a good thing. After all, why should work be such a drag?
I don't want to come across as a curmudgeon who doesn't believe in work-related stress, or as someone who believes that a capitalist system which encourages omnipotent employers will not exploit workers. Anyone with knowledge of the asbestos factories of the early 20th century can see how wrong it is for employers not to treat their workers properly and with dignity.
I know work-related stress exists, and some of the changes introduced by the bigger employers are welcome. Indeed, this is one of the great ironies: it is the larger employers who are leading the way in valuing the workforce.
We have made enormous progress in many areas of both legislation and working practices. Nevertheless, the current paradigm appears to me to be based on some pretty misguided dogma about work-life balance. The very concept of work-life fills me with dread because it firstly assumes that work is somehow different to life and secondly that we have to balance work (bad thing) and non-work (good thing).
This idea is plainly nonsense, as anyone in both a good job and an unhappy marriage would tell you. Yet it hasn't stopped the rise of a whole industry which strives to mitigate the nightmare that is work. This is the kind of thinking that has transformed the ways in which employers and employees view work, to the detriment of both.
The issue is about to become even more problematic for employers because proposals under the forthcoming disability bill mean that mental and physical conditions brought on by stress could well be classed as a disability. This tightens up the traditional HSE definition of stress as an adverse reaction to undue pressure so that stress and its related sicknesses become more akin to clearly definable injuries, disabilities and conditions.
I wonder whether we have now come too far? There are a large number of potential causes of stress among workers, many of which have no relation whatsoever to the work they undertake: home life, relationship difficulties, financial pressures, the lot. Doubtless, many stressed workers are suffering because of work-related factors, too. But should we separate the two? An employer can no more solve someone's problems at home than an employee's spouse can solve their problems at work.
What I regret is the knee-jerk reaction to work-related stress, apparently based on some notion that work is a bad thing. A happy life must be full of goals and challenges, and work can be an enjoyable source of both of these. It is rewarding in many other ways too. I think most employers now accept that, when it comes to employees, they get the whole package - the old-fashioned notion of someone leaving their home life at the door at 9am and leaving their work life behind them at 5pm is no longer valid. They are willing to take the rough with the smooth, accepting that workers have stresses and strains at home too.
Employers seem to be trying hard to give their workers freedom, responsibility and ownership: workers seem to want the benefits without wanting to accept the stresses and strains that pay for these benefits. It is time for us to re-evaluate our reaction to work.
David Sharp is managing director of Workplace Law Group