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Management by stress

This article is over 14 years, 11 months old
Socialist Worker examines how modern management techniques are really about getting us to work harder and longer
Issue 2035
Charlie Chaplin parodied the production line in his 1936 film Modern Times
Charlie Chaplin parodied the production line in his 1936 film Modern Times

Bosses and neoliberal ideologues tell us modern capitalism has changed our lives and the way that we work.

According to them, the world of work has changed dramatically since the years of poverty, lack of control and constant work that characterised the lives of workers at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But the world of work hasn’t changed that much, as many workers could testify.

How many of us have had to put up with Human Resource Management? Workers have become used to ‘key performance indicators’, ‘team working’, ‘appraisals’ and a whole battery of measures that go under the rubric of ‘flexibility’ and ‘modernisation’.

We all now own our ‘own’ jobs. In other words, we are blamed for every little thing that goes wrong.

We are flexible and we work in teams, meaning we do more work for less money. This means, of course, that we are ’empowered’, or more likely, stressed out of our minds and completely exhausted.

New Labour’s neoliberal drive is pushing to extend the same methods used across the private sector into all our public services.

The consultants describe the process like this: ‘There are many dimensions to optimising the organisational environment in order to improve productivity through improved employee motivation.’

Getting people to be flexible and to work in teams is about far more than management finding new ways to annoy workers. The result will be as it always has been – longer hours, greater stress and job cuts.

‘Modernisation’ is what workers are told to accept. In reality there is nothing ‘modern’ about it. It is as old as capitalism. Its real meaning is the same as it always has been – ‘You have to work harder and longer.’

Nearly four million people in Britain are working more than 48 hours a week. A total of 350,000 more people are working a 48-hour week compared with a ten years ago.

‘Flexibility’ means that British workers work the longest hours in Europe. A third of working fathers work more than 48 hours a week.

Modernisation means more exploitation. Karl Marx described this process as the bosses’ desire to ‘fill up the pores of the working day’.

He wrote in the mid-19th century about the brutal effect this has on people’s lives: ‘It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight.

‘It haggles over a mealtime, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself. It reduces the sound sleep to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential.’

That is a description which is just as relevant today, whether you are a slave to a factory production line or to a computer in a call centre.

It is Labour’s vision for workers in the NHS and the civil service.

Accell Team, one of the leading providers of ‘advancing employment productivity’, write in their sales pitch: ‘Though the term scientific management did not come into being well into the Industrial Revolution (the latter half of the 19th century), its history is, on reflection, much longer than the term itself.

‘Consider the management skills required by the ancient Egyptians to build their pyramids, by the ancient Chinese to build the Great Wall of China, the management skills of the Mesopotamians to irrigate their land and wall their cities, of the Romans when building their roads, aqueducts and Hadrian’s Wall.

‘All these man-made constructions required large amounts of human effort and therefore organisation i.e. planning, control and coordination.’

They have a point. There is a continual struggle between the two basic classes in society – bosses and workers.

Bosses, because they’re competing with other bosses, are therefore under pressure to extract more and more from workers.

One key way they do this is by making workers work longer and harder.

Team working is all about co-opting workers

Different corporations have introduced ‘team working’ to their companies as a way to improve efficiency. Team working was a concept initially invented in the car industry.

In Japan, where the system was first developed, ‘teams’ weren’t mentioned. US human resource managers added the word ‘team’ to sell the idea to workers.

As one US study of the car industry put it, ‘The teams in auto plants are made up of interchangeable workers, each adaptable enough to grant management maximum flexibility.

‘Such teams have more in common with a team of horses – equal beasts of burden yoked together to pull for a common end (determined by the person holding the whip).’

The practice has come to be known as ‘management by stress’.

In its original form a system of lights were placed above an assembly line. A green light indicates there are no problems.

A yellow light shows that the operator is having trouble keeping up and needs help and a red light means there is a problem which requires stopping the line.

The yellow light flashes when the operator pulls a cord.

If the operator does not pull the cord again within a fixed interval, say 30 seconds, the red light comes on and the line stops.

Under management by stress, ‘all green’ is undesirable. It means that the system is not running as fast as it could.

It is far better to have yellow lights flashing fairly frequently, indicating that the workers are being stretched to their limits.

Once the system has been fine-tuned, it can be further stressed by increasing the line speed or cutting the number of workers.

Resources can be taken away from stations which are always green.

The ideal state is achieved when the plant is running with all stations just on the line between green and yellow.

That is a practice bosses want in every workplace in Britain.

The other side of management by stress is to make workers continually share their thoughts about the production process.

In theory, the pay off for workers’ increased effort is what management calls ‘multiskilling’ – a worker learns all the jobs in a team instead of just one. But this is a form of deskilling.

Team meetings are not just about post-it notes and ‘blue sky thinking’. They are about workers looking over their work and coming up with ideas about how they can work faster.

Known as quality circles, team concept, jointness or participation programmes, they appeal to benign concepts like ‘harmony’ in an effort to overcome conflict between workers and mangement.

The purpose is to co-opt workers, and either to exclude trade unions or bring them into the process, so that they identify with management and lose sight of their own interests.

They are also a way of creating a layer of small-time supervisors who work longer hours but get to be team leaders and push management’s agenda in the workplace.

Voices from the front line

Civil service worker, Merseyside:

‘Management has introduced what is known as ‘Lean’ into Large Processing Centres (offices) in the Revenue and Customs department.

They did timing exercises on a number of different types of work.

These were flawed as they put pressure on people to do as much work as possible in two hours. Sweat was dropping from people’s foreheads as they did these exercises.

From this they extrapolated targets which were unreasonable.Now people are being bullied and pushed to work faster to meet them.

This is all coming from the top down – from senior managers, to line managers and then to the staff.

They won’t listen to the inconvenient fact that these targets can’t be hit.

People are working to their very limits and are feeling very stressed. Workers are going home in tears.

There is hourly monitoring of workers, and questions if you haven’t made the targets.

Whistling has been stopped in workplaces because, as a senior manager said, ‘It has no added value.’ Talking is discouraged.

Management has used the targets to say that workers will increase their productivity and that because of that there can be 25,000 cuts in jobs.

Our work is very varied. There’s no way you can say a letter should take two to three minutes to deal with.

It could take much longer or much less time. Work that isn’t included in the targets is just being stockpiled. We’re not doing the job we’re supposed to be doing, which is serving the taxpayer.

We are in dispute over Lean. We had a strike last August and an overtime ban since.’

Call centre worker, Glasgow:

‘After getting warned again about not taking enough calls and not being polite enough – by a ‘team leader’ who couldn’t lead a dog – I’ve decided enough’s enough.

I’ve worked in these damn places for years. I’m sure plenty of people will be able to identify with the management fads and the sheer number of idiots that come my way.

You go in happy, and come out a stressed out, angry, moody person who gets sick all the time from the stress. I worked on the line that people call when their phone is broken. Everyone was screaming and angry.

We could not leave our desks. Everything we did was monitored.

If we stayed on a call too long we got in trouble, if we didn’t stay on the call long enough we got in trouble.

They even made us listen to our own phone calls twice a week. It is modern day slavery.

It was hell. It made me physically ill from the stress.

I couldn’t even talk to family or friends on the phone when I went home at night. I never answer the phone anymore.

I have the ringer turned off and all calls go straight to voicemail. I check my voicemail and return the calls that need to be returned.’

Supermarket worker, South London:

‘I pass a full-length mirror on the way to the shop floor. Above it, a big sign asks ‘Are you ready?’

I feel like I never see daylight or get fresh air. The constant beeping of the scanner gets right into your head.

We have all these listening groups and team meetings. Ever since our store manager returned from a ‘leadership’ course he has been getting on our nerves with twice-weekly meetings that seem to go on forever.

We are invited to share our feelings and tell him how we could improve our working lot, but he does not really listen.

They say it is all about talking but they complain if we spend any time talking to each other.

When we are working, mystery shoppers check on how friendly we are, even how often we smile – and it has to be the right sort of smile.’

Mr Taylor and ‘scientific’ management

Behind all the management-speak and the New Labour mantra of ‘modernisation’ sits Frederick Taylor. His work gave rise to the dogma of ‘Taylorism’.

It is a gospel of the time and motion study, of the production target driven by the bullying manager, of the relentless push to squeeze more and more work out of people.

When Taylor pioneered such methods in the late 19th century in the US, he used the example of a model worker, called Schmidt, as the basis for his modern ‘scientific’ management.

Schmidt was not the worker’s real name. He was in fact Henry Noll. Taylor gave him a new name to conjure up the idea of a ‘dumb immigrant’. Noll could read and write and had been to grammar school.

In 1899 Noll worked at a steel works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Taylor knew Noll was saving to build a house so he offered him a bonus rate if he could work as hard as physically possible, insisting, ‘And what’s more, no back talk.’

A labourer at the Bethlehem works normally shifted 24 tons of pig iron in a ten-hour day.

Taylor got Noll to load 47 tons a day for a 61 percent pay ‘differential’. Taylor used this to set a new ‘norm’ for the job, so driving up production.

As a result of Taylor’s experiment in modern working, Noll’s life was wrecked. Noll became old before his time and took to drink. His wife left him.

Taylor thought workers spent too much time ‘in partial idleness, talking and half working, or actually doing nothing’.

In 1910 workers in the US government’s arsenal in Waterstown, Boston, struck against the impact of one of the early attempts at ‘scientific management’.

One striker described how, in a way that will sound familiar to many today, ‘every time I turn I find a man with a watch watching me. If I go after anything he is watching me. When I come he is watching me.’

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