Suffering at work: a new pandemic

by on Tuesday, 08 January 2013 Comments

There is a growing realization among psychologists and within the corporate world that the nature and organization of work have a lasting impact on employees' mental health. Boredom, tiredness and anxiety are the three overwhelming symptoms of mental stress that affect workers.

There is often a growing gap between the aspirations of the worker and the way work is distributed, evaluated and rewarded. The stress on individual, short-term performance rather than on team performance and long-term goals is certainly the main reason for workers' frustration, which translates into stress professional mistakes, lack of creativity and even illness. This trend has a heavy cost, and many of us might experience it in our lives.

It is such a pity because, at the same time, working with others can be a major contributing factor to psychological integration and satisfaction: jobless people suffer not only from material disadvantages but from psychological deprivation as well. One of the basic aspects of work is its reaffirmation of the worker. In this sense, the acknowledgment and appreciation of the value of one's work by the surrounding community, especially by one's supervisor, is something that employees care about much more than is often recognized. It is part of a company's social responsibility to foster debates within the organization on how to make tasks more rewarding, foster cooperation, and ensure that work evaluation be both more helpful and less stressful.

Working is a social apprenticeship: it is about learning to live together, forming consensual opinions and being proud of collectively achieving a goal. In this aspect, our societies suffers from three major illnesses:

- The stress on individual performance rather than on team building destroys solidarity within the workplace: anxious as we are of the way we will be personally evaluated we forget that our performances depend also on our colleagues and the way we interact with them.

- The focus on short-term performance has perverted our sense of time, making us blind to the benefits of organic growth: required as we are to achieve results sometimes on a weekly or monthly basis we live in continuous anxiety, and as a result we lack the imagination necessary for devising new paths for growth and achievements, be it in our personal life or as a corporate actor. It seems that our work units encourage us all the time to help the rice grow (揠苗助長)....

- The continuous overflow of information prevents us from sitting down and listening so as to better understand one another. More and more, quantitative data monopolizes our attention, digital information draws us to screens, and our workplaces are starting to look like archipelagos of "digital islands" that exchange information with remote continents but are no longer aware of the fact that they belong to the same ecosystem.

We realize ourselves through our work, and working with others can be a deeply gratifying experience. Therefore, in order to allow workers to rediscover their inner drive and sense of personal dignity, our offices and factories must learn to foster a capacity for collective discernment and mutual support. However, this will only be the case only if our schools and families also nurture such attitudes. The pandemic that "suffering at work" has become both shines a spotlight on and aggravates the social dysfunctions that affect the entirety of our lives.

Illustration by Bendu

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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