The epidemic of workplace unhappiness: new book

Sarah Maguire
22 November 2018
Faculty of Arts


As the banking royal commission enters its final week of public hearings, a new book sheds light on how corrupt practices may have infected the entire workforce.

The modern workforce is in the grip of a malaise brought on by wage inequality, demanding workloads, job insecurity and mistreatment at work.

Workers report feeling disrespected and ethically compromised.

And Australia has a special place in this First World winter of worker discontent because of its high reliance on the casualisation of work relative to other OECD countries.

Macquarie’s Professor Nicholas Smith, a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Philosophy, says the rise of managerialism has a large role to play in the disgruntlement that multiple surveys across the OECD show is widespread in the Western workforce.

As well as feeling overworked and underpaid, workers report feeling disrespected and ethically compromised in results-driven workplaces that place profit and productivity above all else, and the interests of shareholders over those of workers.

Australia’s Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry is a window into what has gone wrong, says Smith.

“Our work suggests the banks typify something that is a broader trend which is towards corrupt practices which have their roots in management styles,” he says.

A more co-operative, democratic workplace culture, in which workers have more of a say in how work is done, is among the solutions put forward in a new book, The Return of Work in Critical Theory: Self, Society, Politics co-authored by Smith with Macquarie Associate Professor Jean Philippe Deranty and French academics Emmanuel Renault and Christophe Dejours.

“There is the economic inequality – GDP is up, but the proportion of money that is going to labour, the people that work, is either stagnating or decreasing which backs up the perception that work isn’t valued properly,” says Smith, “But there’s a different kind of inequality, which is in regard to having a say in how work is done, and inequalities in power in the workplace itself which I think have been increasing.”

Smith says that despite the average number of paid working hours slightly decreasing in advanced economies, work-life balance is a major concern for people, possibly because work is more demanding and they are feeling drained, harassed, fatigued and stressed by workloads they feel are unreasonable.

“All findings show that work has become increasingly demanding, across the spectrum but in particular in service provision sectors such as teachers, nurses, social workers and doctors,” Smith says.

“When it comes to general satisfaction with working conditions, and the levels of burnout and stress, the statistics are less unequivocal. While you wouldn’t say they provide evidence of a crisis of work, they do back up the idea that as a society we are in the midst of a malaise about work.

“People’s worries about work are well-founded.”

The personal damage of profits at any cost

Management styles that encourage workers to do whatever is necessary to increase profitability and improve results take their toll.

There are trends, for example, towards competitive workplace cultures where workers just look after themselves and perceive their colleagues as threats, which means people may be more inclined to hide information and be underhand, and less inclined to treat each other properly, Smith says.

He points to a comprehensive British survey in which almost a third of workers said they had to compromise their principles at work – a result which can have knock-on effects beyond the workplace as well as within it.

“People are having to do things they feel they ought not do, so not only is that a worry in its own right, but if you think of the effect that this has on people themselves, it is going to have long-term damaging consequences for them. Most people are only able to thrive if they have a good conscience.”

As well, Smith says management styles to increase productivity add to insecurity at work because even when people have permanent rather than casual or gig-economy jobs, the pressure on them to constantly show they are performing at an ever-improving level can affect how secure they feel in their jobs.

“I think everybody can speak from their own experience about the performance review; who nowadays isn’t subject to a KPI (Key Performance Indicator), and who 10 years ago even knew what it meant?” Smith says.

Democracy at work and beyond

Smith and his co-authors argue the solution lies in more democracy at work, so that the ethos is less about doing whatever it takes to improve results, and more about facilitating co-operation between people who work.

As well, people who are performing the show should also run the show, in the way that experts within a profession once became the leaders, not members of a management class “who don’t know the first thing about the activity that they’re managing”.

“We’re not saying we do away with management, it’s just that the management has to be co-operative and inclusive to people who are managed,” Smith says.

“If in your experience of work you don’t see democracy at play, you don’t see justice at play, then you might be drawn towards ideologies where democracy and self-management isn’t so important, and what’s more important is that you have a strong leader who will get things done for you.

“Without fairness at work, democratic society at large is under threat.”


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