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Nice work if you can get it
By Frank Darby and David Brown

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Nice work if you can get it

by Frank Darby and David Brown
Adapted from an article originally published in Safeguard magazine

There are many views of work, and of what it means. Which is right?

Some people believe that work is meant to be hard. Somehow, that it is supposed to be "good" for you. Think back to the long days of a farmer before mechanisation, and you can see the need for hard work. But the factory owners of the 19th century used this marvellous expression to justify working people to death - "It's for your own good!" 

Frederick Winslow Taylor, the pioneer of Scientific Management who was hired by Communist planners to develop methods of ‘scientific’ work in the Russia of the 1920s, stated: “One of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles an ox than any other type.” Is this a recognition that some sorts of work are unfit for almost anyone? That virtually nobody could stand them?

Karl Marx thought that work was a defining feature of being human, but felt that alienated labour was harmful:

“In his work, therefore, [the worker] does not affirm himself but denies himself ... does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind ...”

But Ernest Schumacher, author of the book 'Small is Beautiful' and one-time chief economist at the British Coal Board, gave three aims of work: 

  • To provide necessary and useful goods and services.
  • To enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts, like good stewards.
  • To do so in service to (and in co-operation with) others, so as to liberate ourselves from our inborn egocentricity.

He saw work as not only positive, but essential. The thoughts of Schumacher (and similar thoughts by Solomon from biblical times) might be uncomfortably intense, but as we will see later, they are supported by modern research. 

Mid-20th century French novelist and existentialist philosopher Albert Camus wrote that “without work, all life goes rotten, but when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.” 

Nearly 200 years earlier, Scottish economic philosopher Adam Smith had noted that “the man whose life is spent in performing simple operations ... has no occasion to exert his understanding ... He generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”

So on the one hand, work can be deadly and demeaning, and on the other it can be among our most positive experiences. What aspects of the job determine whether it is "good" or "bad" for us?

Research into work and health

A detailed account of the effect of work on health comes from the studies of Karasek and Theorell. In the early 1970s they followed the prevalence of heart disease in a group of 1600 randomly selected Swedish males for four years. 

The results show an astonishing difference between best and worst outcomes. Jobs in the upper right corner had a 20 percent incidence of heart disease, compared to zero in the bottom left corner! Something very powerful is at work, but it is a little hard to follow what it is.

 Prevalence of Heart Disease

 Decision latitude
 Psychological  demands






Note that by ‘psychological demand’ Karask and Theorell meant something like the demand on the person to be alert and ready to make a response. By ‘decision latitude’ they meant the ability to control the outcome, combining both the formal authority to control it and the actual ability to control it.

Jay Weiss conducted similar experiments in rats and other animals, and found that high decision making rates and low control over outcome were strongly associated with poor health status (ulcers and even death).

Karasek and Theorell carried out further studies with men and women, looking at a wide range of health outcomes, with similar results. To the notions of ‘demand’ and ‘control’ they added the third concept of ‘support’. Depression was examined, with the following findings:

  • In some jobs up to 40 percent of workers were depressed, compared to 10 percent or less in better jobs.
  • If a person had control over their work, depression was greatly reduced.
  • If a person felt supported, depression was also reduced.
  • The demands of the job did not matter much.

Perhaps it is because of these kinds of results that the Swedish Quality of Working Life Act says, in part, that “work shall promote personal and occupational development, self determination and responsibility”. Other researchers have confirmed the importance of the broad factors identified by Karasek and Theorell.

But what is ‘support’? At the site of a fatal industrial accident, men gather and stand in groups. It is quite different to the way that women behave. With men there is nothing happening that you could call ‘support’ - but something real is going on, which helps them to face what happened. Perhaps we could simply call it ‘standing together’.

Karasek and Theorell are Swedes. The term ‘support’ is English. Is it possible that when they use the term ‘support’ they also meant something more than ‘propping up my weakness’? To answer that question requires us to look for positive human qualities and experiences, as well as looking to remove aspects of work that we know to be harmful.

Health and hierarchy

Michael Marmot followed the health of more than ten thousand British civil servants for nearly two decades. The data accumulated is person-specific, offering important advantages over studies based on group averages at a single moment. He found that the age standardised mortality, over a ten year period, among males aged 40 to 64 was about 3.5 times greater for those in the clerical and manual grades, compared to those in the senior administrative grades. There was a significant mortality gradient - suggestive of a dose response relationship. None of the people studied were living in poverty and all experienced similar work environments.

A mortality gradient was also found in each of a number of diseases or causes of death. Some were clearly related to smoking behaviour (‘top people’ rarely smoke, ‘bottom people’ often do), but a gradient was observed for some diseases that have no known relation to smoking - and ‘top people’ who did smoke were much less likely to die from smoking related diseases.

So something operates powerfully to influence health, and is correlated with hierarchy per se. It operates on a middle class of people and its effects are large. For both animals and humans, being near the bottom of the social ladder produces worse health outcomes than being near the top, and this cannot be explained solely by diet, workload and lifestyle.

Instability in the social ladder (ie: uncertainty, and increased social friction) also has a health impact for both animals and humans, who may feel picked on, put down or talked down to.

Freedom from emotional fatigue

The timing of work is a factor that was not directly examined by Karasek or by Marmot, but Jay Weiss found it a vital factor in his animal studies. So we could ask: what should be the distribution of work and rest in a job to ensure optimum productivity and health?

In 1919 Frank and Lillian Gilbreth studied people folding handkerchiefs. The task was changed from ‘flat out all day’ to 46 minutes work per hour, with a break of one minute every five minutes and a five minute additional rest once an hour. These pioneers of work study found that, after the addition of the rest breaks, production increased by a factor of 3.5!

We don’t pretend the increase was due only to the new work rest regime, and the “rest” involved is not simply physical. We could simply say that if you are in action mode for long periods without a break, you may become emotionally tired. ‘Action mode’ is a term that we use to mean alert, ready to respond, attentive, aroused or activated, as described above. These concepts lead to some simple conclusions about what good work means:
. Good work is an alternation of being and doing, attention then reflection, effort then rest.
. Sustained ‘readiness to respond’ is tiring.
. Finishing a task brings spontaneous relaxation.
. Unfinished tasks stay on your mind.
. Satisfaction is in the finishing.
. The number of tasks we can perform at once is limited.

Kaare Rohdahl captures the essence of ‘being and doing’ with some poignant thoughts about why only some people develop muscle discomfort: “... Or it may be caused by the inability to relax while involved in a monotonous manual static task, allowing the mind to be free, and the thoughts to drift on their own accord ...”

Freedom from bad feelings

We can also say that good work includes freedom from bad feelings. The earliest writings suggest that the way we think and feel about things influences us, as this extract from the twin verses of the Darma Pada shows:

He beat me, he abused me, he robbed me, he cheated me.
If a man harbours such thoughts, then suffering follows
as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the cart.
He beat me, he abused me, he robbed me, he cheated me.
If a man does not harbour such thoughts, then happiness follows
as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the cart.

Alternatively, ancient Greek writer Epictetus observed that “it is not events that upset men, it is what they think of them”. Although rarely stated so bluntly, this sentiment can be found in diluted form in contemporary publications. For example, the joint ACC/OSH guides about treating back pain and overuse syndromes both discuss the role that illness beliefs play in the rate at which people recover from pain.

Good work, like good life, therefore implies freedom from bad feelings. Where do bad feelings come from? They are caused by thoughts. What are thoughts? They are ‘conversations within the body’. Negative conversations that go round and round, reinforcing themselves, lead us into the trap of prolonged activation, so they are tiring in the same way that some work is tiring.

In our experience it is the losing of a status struggle, followed by repetitive thoughts about that loss, that leads to uncontrollable bad feelings. This is a reference to the third of Schumacher’s dimensions of good work. Of course, many people lose status struggles and don’t feel bad about it! But for those who do experience a bad reaction, one session with a psychologist or a conversation with a sensible friend may be very helpful.

Summarising good work

Here is how I know my work is good:

  • I can finish my tasks or, for a long task, I can structure its completion in stages.
  • I find it satisfying to finish my tasks.
  • If I have difficulties, I can and do ask others for help.
  • It is unusual for anyone here to put me down, so I don’t often have bad feelings.
  • If something unpleasant does happen, I solve it. I don’t go on and on about it.
  • There are positive qualities to the way I relate to others here.

We would expect such a person to be healthy. So, if you have a bad job and remove the bad bits, that’s good. But to make a job good, things need to be added to the work. This means that there is a balance of responsibility for good, healthy work between the individual and the organisation he or she works for.

The organisation’s responsibility lies in providing tasks that are achievable and worthwhile; attending to the problems of status struggles and put-downs; providing occasions for positive relations to develop; and actively intervening if status problems get out of hand.

For the individual, responsibility consists of organising one’s own work so it can be finished; understanding the ‘status struggle trap’; and being realistic and constructive about life!

Frank Darby is a New Zealand ergonomist. David Brown is an occupational psychologist and ergonomist from Sydney.


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