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Sharon Beder - on our unhealthy addiction to work
Steven Shainberg's movie Secretary portrays a kinky employer-employee relationship in an otherwise everyday workplace. The secretary, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is newly released from a psychiatric hospital and has never had a job in her life. But she manages to land a position with suburban lawyer Edward Grey (James Spader). On the job, the complementary disorders of boss and secretary his sadism, her masochism give each the opportunity to indulge their sexual fantasies. The comedy emerges from this mixture of the commonplace and the bizarre.
Many workplaces harbour domineering bosses who seem to love inflicting punishment on compliant, submissive employees. Employers have specific and mutually recognised powers over employees through their ability to reward and punish workers, and ultimately to deprive them of their jobs if they don't submit. They are able to control what people do for a large part of their waking hours, that is, when they are at work. That power can be, and sometimes is, abused.
But the exercise of power that is portrayed in a raw and primitive form in Secretary is, in the real work world, often more subtle and internalised. Employers as a social class have what economist John Kenneth Galbraith has called conditioned power, the sort of power that people are often unaware of: "The acceptance of authority, the submission to the will of others, becomes the higher preference of those submitting. This preference can be deliberately cultivated by persuasion or education. This is explicit conditioning. Or it can be dictated by the culture itself; the submission is considered to be normal, proper, or traditionally correct. This is implicit conditioning."
Such conditioning means that people internalise submission as part of their own sense of what is good and moral behaviour. Rewards and punishments may reinforce this behaviour but it is generally self-motivated. And the work ethic is a large part of the conditioning that produces self-motivated, hard-working employees.
The work ethic had its origins in the Protestant Reformation and although few of us are religious these days, it has survived the centuries surprisingly well. Hard work is still seen to be an outward manifestation of good character and moral integrity.
In the modern secular world people tend to be much more morally indignant about those who won't work than those whose sexual tendencies deviate from the norm. It is those on the dole, particularly those suspected of choosing to be unemployed, who are subject to the most vitriolic approbation. They are stigmatised as lazy, hopeless, irresponsible bludgers, and even as mentally ill.
Shainberg's secretary has spent time in a psychiatric institution for harming herself with sharp instruments. Yet Lee would be much less likely to draw the attention of shrinks while employed, despite her continued masochistic tendencies. Employment is considered, in the psychiatric manuals, to be evidence that a person is able to function socially.
Yet how sane is the addiction to work suffered by many in the community? How sane is it to work nine or 10 hours a day to pay for home comforts and luxuries that you don't have time or energy to enjoy? Or to spend so many hours with people you may not even like much, while your children hardly see you, and you lose touch with your real friends (if you ever had time to make any)?
Diane Fassel, in Working Ourselves to Death, notes the dearth of literature on work addiction. While other addicts are stigmatised, workaholics are often admired as models of virtue and selfless dedication. Fassel points out that it is not only high-powered executives and yuppies who become workaholics. Nor are workaholics generally happy or superproductive.
Yet work addiction seems to be what employers look for in employees. In an article titled "Spotting the hard worker", business guru John Wareham advises employers to choose the person driven by a work ethic: "Conscientious workers usually see overtime and weekend work as opportunities to go the extra mile and get ahead in the world. They talk about feeling guilty when not engaged in some productive activity."
Work has become so central to most people's lives that they would have difficulty knowing what to do with themselves without it. Many people do not know how to relax and find leisure time unsatisfactory. A study by the US Department of Commerce found that only six out of 10 people reported getting "a great deal" of satisfaction from their leisure time. Many people fear retirement and some find difficulty coping with retirement.
For a workaholic, work is the only source of identity, status and respect from others. Work provides them with purpose, social relations and a structure to their day. It defines who they are and what they are worth. It is their whole life. Is this not pathological, this investment in something that is defined and provided by others and can so easily be taken away?
In a work-dominated society, happiness must be earned through hard work. For the characters in Secretary, the gratification was relatively immediate. For most workers the time, effort, boredom and indignity associated with much work is the price paid to attain the happiness promised by consumer goods.
Workers not only spend long hours at work, but they spend additional time getting to and from work, preparing for work, talking about their jobs, worrying about their work, worrying about losing their jobs, looking for other jobs. Lunchtimes are spent eating, running errands, taking clients to lunch or just working.
Temporary and contract workers are particularly pressured to work long hours as employers want to get the most out of them while they have them. Because of the lack of security such workers are keen to please employers so that they might be kept on or given future assignments. Also, growing competition, especially with firms based in nations where wages are lower, has put increasing pressure on workers to deliver more.
Women have been hit particularly hard by accelerating work trends. Not only are they working an extra 305 hours a year on the job compared with 20 years ago but they tend to be responsible for the household duties as well. Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American, has calculated that mothers, who are employed, work an average total of 65 hours a week in the workplace and at home. At the same time their husbands tend to be doing longer hours at work and are less available to help at home.
Australians with full-time jobs are also working longer hours, according to government and union surveys. And new management trends require more work from employees, for example: performance-based pay; outsourcing, where work is put out to contract and where those who can achieve more for less get the work; re-engineering, which requires fewer workers to be more flexible and to cover more tasks; and "stretch management", which involves extending goals beyond employees' past achievements.
While some people work long hours, others are underemployed or unemployed. Indeed it is the presence of unemployment that enables employers to demand longer hours from those who feel lucky to have a job. Job insecurity is a major factor in the increasing working hours of middle managers.
White-collar and professional workers are usually paid a fixed weekly or annual salary that leaves them vulnerable to employer demands for longer hours, and provides employers with a strong incentive to demand them. In Australia, 43 per cent of full-time workers do overtime and 65 per cent of them do not get paid for it. It is more economic for employers to have workers doing overtime, even if they have to pay double or triple time, than it is to hire new employees because of recruitment and training costs, insurance, benefits and other overhead costs.
Some professional groups and management executives work 70-80 hours per week with extra work in times of heavy demand. More than 80 per cent of professional scientists and engineers surveyed by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers of Australia said that they regularly worked unpaid overtime.
Those who refuse to work these hours will be passed over for promotion because they are seen as lacking commitment to the company. Schor notes: "For every aspiring manager determined to limit his or her hours, there are usually many more willing to give the company whatever time it demands." Employers offer the prize of higher salaries, benefits and status for those who play the game.
But so much work can sap a person's energy and the desire to develop their potential as people. After eight or more hours at the office, followed by a frantic rush home in peak-hour traffic, few people have the energy left for much more than dinner and television. The average Australian, according to the Bureau of Statistics, spends four out of every five minutes of passive leisure with audiovisual media, particularly television, radio and CDs.
In an article by R J Kriegler on "Workers and Bosses", an Australian worker described how even an average work day left little room for other activities: "At the end of each day you are buggered, physically buggered. You're just sort of shattered. And it takes a couple of hours when you get home of sitting down to get over it. There is no hope of being able to play with the children. I go to bed at about nine or 10 so that I can get up in time to be back at work by seven in the morning. We are just work machines. They tell you that you are working for BHP for only eight hours a day, but basically you are working for the company twenty-four hours a day."
People who work too much and are constantly busy have little time to contemplate or to question. Anxieties are suppressed and critical thought inhibited. One is simply caught up in day-to-day affairs. To some extent, keeping busy enables people to get on with lives that they don't want to think about. Work, like other addictions, enables people to cope with their fears and problems by ignoring them, not facing up to them.
Modern workers rush about so much that they don't have time to stop and consider the point of it all. One businessman, Thomas Asacker, has noted: "It seems that most of the people I run into simply want enough money and free time for things like annual vacations, watching television, surfing the net, or kibitzing about this or that. Questioning the way things are and trying to improve them appears to be nothing but a waste of their 'downtime'. Business people seem particularly prone to this status quo way of living. We're running so fast that we often forget to stop, take a breath, look at the map and question the route."