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Donkin on Work - Workplace Change

July 2008 – Work – getting the balance right

One of Toyota’s leading engineers has died of overwork, aged 45, according to a Japanese labour bureau ruling reported by the Associated Press last week. In the two months before his death the man, who has not been named, had worked more than 160 hours of overtime.

The clinical cause of death was heart disease but Japanese labour laws recognise death through overwork, known as “karoshi,” allowing the families of those so designated to claim benefits from employment insurance.

Such deaths have increased steadily since 1987 when Japan’s health ministry first recognised an association between mortality and long working hours. Last year, a court in central Japan ordered the government to pay compensation to the wife of a Toyota employee who collapsed at work and died at the age of 30 in 2002.

In the most recent case the family’s lawyer said that the engineer had been under severe pressure to develop a new version of one of the company’s best selling cars. While I wouldn’t dispute the claim, in Japan, at least, such pressure is generated as much from within as it is externally.

The culture of work, combined with a sense of duty and service to the employer is so ingrained that people will work regularly at nights and weekends, often at the expense of their families and health.

Compare these attitudes with those of shop owners in the Via Fillungo the main shopping street of Lucca in Tuscany where I happened to be taking a stroll last Saturday, the busiest day of the week.

Come lunchtime at about 1 pm the shutters went down, the shops were locked and, in some cases, that was the end of business for the day. Others reopened at 3 pm after a leisurely break for lunch. They know how to live in Lucca but even here, I noticed, there is pressure for change. Some of the clothing chain shops continued to open over lunch.

One of the old established shops was an ironmonger with a counter, behind which was a wall of boxes containing all kinds of screws, scissors and doorknobs. The man behind the counter was the owner and he knew everything there was to know about his products – sizes, prices and colours, how they worked and how they fitted together.

Sadly, like Lucca itself, the shop and its owner belong to another age. But it was a useful reminder that in a world where increasingly employees have become commodities, we can still find islands of resistance to the blandness of that which is easily replicated and which, by its nature, becomes the first refuge of corporatism.

The Italian holiday gave me time to reflect on the travels I have undertaken in the past 14 years since I began writing this column. One of those journeys led me to the dusty shell of a derelict factory at Midvale, the former steelworks on the outskirts of Philadelphia where Frederick W Taylor first took out his stopwatch and began timing how long it took people to do various elements of their work.

You can find plenty of information on Taylor’s experiments in books but sometimes there is no substitute for looking around and kicking the dirt. Walking the floorboards of Thomas Edison’s former Menlo Park laboratory, reconstructed at The Henry Ford museum in Deerborn, Michigan, you can almost feel the excitement of collaboration among his team of young scientists.

The contrast between Edison’s teamwork and Taylor’s autocratic time and motion approach in their respective workplaces is almost palpable.

In New Lanark the Scottish mill village where Robert Owen developed his ideas of social entrepreneurship, there was a row of terraced houses called Caithness Street, homes once to refugees from the Highland clearances. These former crofters and farmers, dispossessed of their livelihoods, had never settled to factory work.

There was a similar story at Cromford Mills in Derbyshire, established by Richard Arkwright in 1746. There, whole families were enticed to work in the mill with promises of housing, even a family cow and a vegetable plot to remind them of the semi-rural and independent artisan-led lives they left behind them.

In Kowanyama, a small aboriginal community tucked away in a remote part of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, I spoke with Jerry Mission, an aging member of the Yir-Yoront tribe who explained how work, for him had no real meaning. All the meaning he needed in life was embodied in storytelling among his family and in the hunt for food – something he never thought of as work.

Contrast these human stories against the philosophies of the Victorian writers, Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Smiles, who spoke about work with a sense of religious fervour and duty similar to the ideas embodied in the aphorisms of Benjamin Franklin.

No matter where we travel or how far we look back we can find people of two minds – those whose thinking is dominated by a need to work, build and prosper, and others, like the poet W H Davies, who believe we are losing a sense of ourselves if “we have no time to stand and stare.”

While work has evolved, the struggle between these competing ethics continues to dominate workplace behaviours and management thinking. In response to the long office hours that have emerged from a crumbling of more rigid working structures in the name of flexibility, we are presented with ill-defined notions such as work-life balance that try to differentiate and compartmentalise the things we do.

The shop-workers in Lucca might understand such concepts but those who rely on web-based information for their work are struggling, reluctant even, to put a lid on their work.

This is why I believe that jobs and attitudes to work and recruitment must change fundamentally if we are to retain a sense of proportion over work and business. Karoshi is a Japanese export we can all do without.

It is also why my next job is a book exploring various themes that are influencing changes in work. So this is my last column in this space. It’s sad to be leaving – a little bit like moving home – but fourteen years is long enough in any role, probably too long. I never realised at the outset there was so much to learn about work, and still we cannot get it right.

See also: The Age of the Destructured Career

   
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