The 9-to-5 world's zombies

The Living Dead - Bait and Switch - The Politics of Working Life
April 28, 2006

Studs Terkel in his acclaimed book Working wrote: "Work is, by its very nature, about violence - to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us."

This was written in the 1970s but, according to the authors of these three books, the same underlying sentiments apply today - that although work can be challenging and fulfilling, there are many aspects of working life that switch people off and cause them enormous stress: organisational politics, the boring nature of the work, the poor management of people or the constraining corporate culture of the organisation.

Albert Camus' quote, at the beginning of David Bolchover's The Living Dead , sums up the essence of his book: "Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies." This work attempts to highlight the plight not of the high-achieving, stressed-out executive or money-market dealer or TV presenter, but of the many people who have jobs that are not stimulating or exciting, and who feel that they contribute little to their organisation or society. Bolchover sums them up: "Their working lives are mindlessly boring, utterly pointless and without meaning, their abilities are completely wasted. Their home lives may be happy and fulfilled, but at work they are the people that time forgot. They contribute next to nothing. They are the Living Dead."

The organisations that create the circumstances for this malaise are ones that fail to develop the potential of their workforce, being interested only in the bottom line. What they fail to understand, says the author, is that this unmotivated behaviour damages not only the individual concerned but ultimately the bottom line of the enterprise.

Bolchover highlights the enormous direct costs to organisations of the apathetic and demotivated "long-forgotten talent". The average US worker, for example, wastes two hours a day; 40 per cent of workers in Germany, the US and the UK spend an hour or more a day every day e-mailing friends from work; Mondays (23 per cent) and Fridays (25 per cent) are the days most commonly taken off sick by UK employees, and so on.

The book comprises eight chapters and an epilogue, each of which builds the case for highlighting the plight of disengaged workers, with unique chapter titles such as "My life in the cracks", "Money for nothing", "The quest for meaning", "The invisible manager" and the "End of the corporate monolith".

In his final chapter, the author suggests some alternative strategies to escape the living death: "seek out small operations", forget the corporate world where you are less likely to feel valued; "find the right manager to work with", someone who is interested in you and your development; "sniff out signs of life and openness in the company or department you are looking at"; "set up your own company on your own or with a friend - you might worry yourself into an early grave, but it is unlikely you will get bored"; and work from your strengths, go to a job that stimulates your energy levels. In essence, Bolchover reinforces what Terkel concludes in his book:

"Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying."

Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist, like Bolchover, but in Bait and Switch she relates what she underwent in trying to obtain an executive-type job and to experience all aspects of the corporate American dream. What she found was the dark side of the disposable workforce, the lack of opportunity in the land of plenty and the debilitating, dehumanising experiences in trying to gain entry to corporate heaven. The book charts her personal "undercover" experiences of trying to get a job, eliciting the help of career coaches, web job searches, networking activities and DIY management books on "how to crash through the oak ceiling". In this journey, she also wanted to experience the "executive nirvana" for several months as well, but she never did get the job she aspired to, so the book ended up as a personal journey in the "job-hunting" jungle of corporate America at a time of high unemployment, job insecurity, stock-market declines and the like.

The book is a great read because it is a personal account of her attempts to get a top job and hold it. Even though her background in the corporate world was limited, she worked ceaselessly to get a top public relations job. The book reads like a novel, with the author as the central character.

The first chapter highlights her experiences with a career coach, to help her with "the mechanics of job searching". This chapter, like the rest of the book, is rich in humour as Ehrenreich grapples with the jargon of the coaches, psychologists, human resources types and prospective employers.

The second chapter is about networking, trying to develop professional links and spending several weeks on a job-seeking "boot camp" with trainers who speak in euphemisms, recommending books such as The Ultimate Secret of Getting Everything you Ultimately Want and Chicken Soup for the Soul . Her experiences in this boot camp and her comments on the DIY books available are both hilarious and hard-hitting for those of us who try to write "management guru" books.

After months of pursuing the corporate dream to no avail, the best Ehrenreich could do was to get some sales jobs, mostly cold calling, and even then the promises and experiences of dealing with the entrepreneurs involved were beyond funny. I enjoyed this book as I would a novel or autobiography, and I learnt a few lessons about the despair of rejection, the exploitation of vulnerable job seekers and, above all, about not only what work can do to people but also what not having a job can do.

The Politics of Working Life by Paul Edwards and Judy Wajcman is more academic than the other two books, and it takes an industrial relations and organisational sociology perspective on the changing nature of work. The authors, who suggest that their central theme is about "contradictions", highlight today's market-driven economy and some of the downsides of the workplace (for example, pressures on family life, lack of real participation, the undermining of career structures and so on).

The first chapter explores the changing nature of work and provides a variety of concepts and paradigms, which leads nicely to the second chapter, "What is happening to jobs", which examines people's experience of work today. It is partly about the psychological contract between employer and employee, where employers continually want commitment but increasingly will not commit to their employees in terms of job security and the like.

This is followed by an exploration of work-life balance - or the lack thereof. This is an important issue that is getting real prominence because of the rise of the two-earner family, new technology and more opportunities for virtual or at least partial virtual working. Then the authors consider the issue of whether "an organisational career (is) an outdated concept", when you consider the intrinsic job insecurity in most developed countries.

From there, they examine performance management and reward systems within the workplace and how these affect individuals' motivation and commitment. There are the "usual suspects" in other chapters such as empowerment, whether decision-making is a "rational process", how markets work and globalisation. But there is also a novel and interesting chapter on "Why disasters happen", which looks at the cultures of fear, technological meltdowns, man-made crises and so on - an innovative theme for a book of this nature.

The final chapter is on the "Opportunities and responsibilities of organisational life", which considers where capitalism is going, the issues of corporate social responsibility and business ethics. This well-written book highlights some of the more interesting developments in the changing nature of work and provides good case studies and other illustrative material to aid the reader. As a sociological account of the politics and culture of working life, it is a good addition to any organisational behaviour bookshelf.

Although these books in one way or another explore some of the dark sides of working life, they also help us to see what can be done by highlighting some of the contemporary dilemmas. As T. S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets :

"We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time."

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health, Lancaster University Management School.

The Living Dead: Switched Off, Zoned Out - The Shocking Truth about Office Life

Author - David Bolchover
Publisher - Capstone
Pages - 150
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 1 84112 656 X

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