Trouble at Work is a summary of specialist sociological research into bad treatment in the workplace, which tries to move forward from the usual individualised and psychological concepts of behaviour towards a more social model that looks at interactions between workers and employers.
The researchers consider the impact of what they collectively describe as “ill-treatment” such as bullying, harassment and stress, both on workers but also on organisations as a whole. Workers repeatedly talk in the case studies about not feeling valued, poor leadership and management, poor communication, work intensification, organisational change, restructuring, localised political struggles, pay cuts and bad working conditions. These will seem familiar to many people reading the book.
The impact of this “ill-treatment” is demoralisation of workers, sometimes violence and serious health problems, but it can also have a huge cost to organisations in terms of productivity and profitability. But the research revealed that employers are sometimes willing to bear these costs in order to achieve their aims, or see it as “the necessary price that must be paid to modernise unproductive work practices”. Some go as far as to describe using or breaking down the industrial relations machinery to reshape employee behaviour.
The book considers the impact of ill-treatment on workers who are older, disabled or sick, women, LGBT or from ethnic minorities and finds that the type of workplace that you are employed in is the most likely cause of bullying. In organisations where the culture is considered more nurturing of workers and their individual needs, ill-treatment is less commonplace.
There is clearly confusion about what constitutes unacceptable behaviour at work among both workers and managers but what is clear is that many employers can do more to minimise these experiences and deliberately choose not to. Many public sector organisations are experiencing a high level of ill-treatment, primarily from managers, maybe reflecting the huge levels of organisational change currently taking place.
Not surprisingly the research suggests that workers who are most likely to stand up for themselves are least likely to experience ill-treatment. In one organisation, “Strand”, a manager compared the difficulties in one site in the UK with a long-serving trade union convenor, with the ease of a site in the Far East where there are no “complex agreements” and employees are “very much more amenable” to change.
Trouble at Work ultimately describes complex tensions in industrial relations that often have unhappy outcomes for all concerned, and is an extremely useful work for trade unionists and others studying these issues.
Trouble At Work is published by Bloomsbury Academic £55 (Bookmarks bookshop special offer £19.99)
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