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
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
- To provide necessary and useful goods and services.
- To enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts, like
- 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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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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