Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, March 31, 2011

When Work Attacks

I just returned from a meeting--one of many already, with more planned--in response to our state's budget crisis.  I use this term to describe the state of turmoil caused by our new governor's budget "repair" bill and proposed biennial budget, not to any real state of financial emergency, despite claims to the contrary. 

In any case, much of our meeting was taken up with discussion of a very real joblessness emergency in large portions of our community. 

So I am somewhat chagrined by this post I began earlier today, on the subject of bad jobs and the people who are tortured by them.  In our current climate, many feel that anyone who is employed, more or less gainfully, should be happy just to have a job.  And I agree.

But that doesn't change the fact that I spent the morning and early afternoon today hearing tales of extreme job distress from two people I am close to.

It is probably passe to speak of the "alienation" of a worker from his or her work, at least in classical Marxist terms.  But, as Steven Greenhouse made plain in The Big Squeeze:  Tough Times for the American Worker, workers across the board in this country are losing ground.  The great armies of the unemployed and underemployed are ever present reminders of the dispensability of those who still have jobs.   Against that backdrop, unions are busted, workers become permanent "temporary" workers, work conditions can feature illegal lock-ins--and far too many of us just plain hate the jobs we have. 

I have written before about Jonathan Haidt's (The Happiness Hypothesis) elephant and rider metaphor, around which Chip Heath and Dan Heath organized their fascinating book Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard.   Not being an employer, I considered the Heath brothers' ideas more in the context of personal change.  But listening to my friends today, I thought of the damage that is done to the elephantine heart and will of workers who are roughly treated by oblivious rider bosses and institutions.

Disrespect, arbitrary displays of power, undermining, underhandedness, and even deprivation of meaningful responsibility and initiative can all have devastating effects, though they might be preferred to the absence of employment and secure income altogether.  The worker who is subject to such conditions can lose the will to work.  In Haidt's schema, the mistreated elephant might sink to the ground, transformed into an immovable behemoth.  Or anger and frustration may turn to rage, in most cases stopping far short of the "going postal" variety, but nevertheless wreaking havoc on the individual's health and job security.

In such situations, procrastination may be a coping mechanism, born of torpor or of fury.  But it is unlikely to solve the problem.  For that, joining forces with others is probably necessary.

And the bumper sticker for this movement?

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