“Management kills”

15 October 2018 -

Stressed workerThe effect of toxic workplaces on your health

Simon Caulkin

The top four causes of death in the US are heart disease, cancer, lung disease and strokes. No surprises there. The fifth, though– ahead of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia – is a shock. It is going to work.

According to recent research, toxic (in the broadest sense) workplaces are responsible for 120,000 excess American deaths a year, at an additional annual cost of $190bn to the health system.

Let that sink in. These figures are not the result of collapsing buildings, burning sweatshops or poorly maintained machinery. The culprit is standard management practices such as layoffs (35,000 deaths), long hours and shift work (13,000), job insecurity (29,000), low job control (17,000) and high job pressures (8,000). Any single one of these is as harmful to an individual’s health as inhaling second-hand smoke.

These are the astonishing findings of Stanford’s Jeff Pfeffer, a universally respected researcher, and a team of statisticians and modellers, detailed in his angry and important new book Dying for a Paycheck.

Recounting the care lavished on trees in the grounds of his university as hundreds were being laid off during the financial crisis, he notes caustically that ‘At Stanford you were better off being a tree than an employee’. The same is true of too many workplaces, he charges. Ah, you may be thinking: but things are better here than in the US, where a significant chunk of the working population has no health insurance (responsible for a whopping 50,000 deaths).

Read more: these are the traits of toxic bosses

Flexible working may be a risk

True. But consider how the UK’s vaunted ‘flexible labour market’ plays out for those in some of the emblematic jobs of 21st-century Britain. In Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-wage Britain, James Bloodworth recalls stints as an Uber driver, Amazon warehouse picker and carer for the elderly. His experiences hark back to the 19th century: harsh security, tight supervision (down to the timing of toilet breaks), arbitrary sanctions and zero guarantees of regular, or any, hours or pay.

Uncomfortably, a recent report found that only six per cent of UK managers could guarantee that their supply chains were untainted by forms of forced labour or modern slavery.

As work becomes more contingent and fragmented, and the ties that hold organisations together ever weaker, such practices seem likely to intensify. They have the seal of shareholder approval. But, as we have seen, they also come with a heavy cost, borne initially by those directly involved, and indirectly by society as a whole. Could it be that today’s political upheavals are at least partly fuelled by rumbling discontent in the workplace?

This year the Global Peter Drucker Forum adopted ‘Management – the human dimension’ as the theme of its annual conference in November. The choice seems both prescient and urgent. Behind the theme lies a widespread and deepening worry: that the world of work is being drained of humanity by digital technologies that, when not directly replacing humans, are subjecting those who remain to ever more intrusive monitoring and control.

Management is more dangerous than technology

Yet the bigger danger to the human dimension is not technology, but management itself. It wasn’t technology that invented zero-hour contracts, 15-minute slots to deliver care for the elderly or the outsourcing of employment to agencies that regularly fail to produce contracts or pay workers in full. It was management.

“It is management decisions that create toxic work environments, and it is management decisions that could, and in too few cases do, fix them,” Pfeffer points out. That so many don’t fix things is a double management failing, since, as a mountain of research demonstrates, these workplace harms are not only eminently preventable, but preventing them would benefit employers too. Yet the fact that treating people properly comes at no cost to efficiency, although important, is a secondary consideration.

If managers’ very first responsibility isn’t for the welfare of their fellow human beings in the organisations they lead, then what is it for?

Read more: why doing business ethically makes for better business

Image: Shutterstock

Powered by Professional Manager