Burn-out Britain will be the death of us

New evidence suggests the relentless pressure to 'work harder' is turning us into a nation of stressed-out, disconnected zombies


Eighteen months ago I decided that there was no alternative. After 15 years of abstinence and in full knowledge of the likely medical consequences, I went out and bought myself 20 Benson and Hedges. I'd started smoking again.

Eighteen months ago I decided that there was no alternative. After 15 years of abstinence and in full knowledge of the likely medical consequences, I went out and bought myself 20 Benson and Hedges. I'd started smoking again.

What now makes me walk out of my office at Broadcasting House five times a day and bustle along the corridor to the claustrophobic smoking-room is not the recurrence of a hideous addiction but the desperate need to find space and time where I can relax and chat to fellow workers. As we like to say to each other, we may all die earlier but at least we'll die talking.

Until about five years ago, office life at Broadcasting House was amiably gregarious. Some of the chatter was inconsequential but a great deal was about the programmes that were being made. Ideas and references were happily exchanged. Small groups of producers and researchers would disappear for lunch. There'd be regular drinks after work in the local pubs.

But life at the BBC, as at so many of the other major organisations, has changed dramatically. People no longer move about and talk. They are instead silently rooted hour after hour to their PC. E-mails have replaced the walks along the corridor to chat to colleagues. There are no informal coffee breaks. Lunchtime get-togethers have been abandoned in favour of the solitary consumption at one's desk of a sandwich and a tin of Diet Coke. After-work drinks become impossible to organise when almost everyone feels the pressure to work several hours of free overtime every week.

One dramatic result of this lack of association is that employees have become isolated from each other. In the past it was always possible for groups of workers to band together and construct ways in which they could formally or informally beat off some of the more unreasonable demands of their employers. It's now a case of everyone for himself. And this sense of isolation is encouraged by the new world of short-term contracts in which working longer and longer hours may be the only way for employees to demonstrate to managers that they are worthy of re-employment. What once was a coherent workforce has increasingly become a set of insecure and fiercely competitive individuals.

We're already familiar with the statistics showing that people in this country work longer hours than elsewhere in Western Europe, but now we have reliable evidence on the effect of this excessive workload. Last week a poll conducted for the TUC not only revealed that Britons were carrying out £23bn worth of unpaid overtime every year, but also showed that more than half of all full-time workers were finding it difficult to cope with the stress. Twelve million employees believed their job made them more irritable and bad-tempered at home and four million had suffered damage to their personal relationships.

All those extra hours at work might just be tolerable if we could arrive home and enjoy some hours of relaxation and sociability. But unfortunately the new British predilection for working ever longer hours is not confined only to the adult population; our children are being dragged along behind us. A recent survey suggests that more than two million parents are struggling to cope with the demands created by their children's additional homework. You could, I suppose, claim that the new workloads being placed on children at school will perfectly prepare them for the jobs that lie ahead. Those taking A-levels are on average working 50 hours a week at their studies.

Are politicians showing any concern about what John Monks, the TUC general secretary, has called "burn-out Britain"? Hardly. TUC delegates at their annual conference last week barely had time to digest the alarming results of the poll I mentioned before Gordon Brown was striding on stage to insist that there must be a national drive to boost productivity. Workers, the Chancellor declared, must stop blaming such external factors as the strong pound and realise that the only way to secure the future was to work even harder.

There's a double absurdity in this injunction. The first was alluded to by Mr Monks when he replied to Mr Brown's hectoring with the assertion that what we really needed to do was to "work smarter [ sic] not longer". When one walks into a typical modern office and sees employees electronically chained to their desks for up to 60 hours a week, one might reasonably assume that here was evidence of high productivity. But studies by sociologists and psychologists have shown that much of this work can quickly become robotic and unproductive unless workers are given free time and space to associate with colleagues and share their knowledge and experience. The management of the information-technology giant Hewlett-Packard is sufficiently conscious of this necessity to have incorporated it into a slogan,"If only Hewlett-Packard knew what Hewlett-Packard knew". But how can the tacit knowledge to which this slogan refers ever remain anything other than tacit knowledge when managers and their allies in the dubious new profession of facilities management do their best to exclude opportunities for socialising?

None of these developments has stopped managers and consultants banging on about the importance of teamwork. Even though the emphasis in so many modern workplaces is on immediate performance and short-term results, on individual assessment and appraisal, workers are routinely instructed not to think in terms of workers and bosses but to see everyone as members of the same team. As Richard Sennett puts it in his perceptive account of the personal consequences of work in the new capitalism, The Corrosion of Character: "The fiction arises that workers and bosses aren't antagonists; the boss instead manages group process. He or she is 'a leader', the most cunning word in the modern management lexicon; a leader is on your side, rather than your ruler."

Longer and longer hours and more and more individualised working not only militate against imagination and creativity, but also inhibit the development of one of work's great compensations: the possibility of making friends. This is far from being a sentimental consideration. In his new book, On Friendship, the sociologist Ray Pahl asserts, on the basis of several major studies, that "anyone with heart problems who ... lacks social support has a substantially greater risk of dying earlier. Having this social support empowers people to live more effectively and ... healthily, and for longer".

It is a sign of how much we now take work to be the essence of our being, rather than the means to a better life, that so many of the remarks made last week about the fuel blockade referred not to its rights and wrongs but to the fact that so many people had taken time off work in order to demonstrate. But then, as one campaigner pointed out in a radio interview, there was the extraordinary compensation of finding friends one never knew one had.

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