Sunday, March 30, 2014

Highway to burnout


This weekend I also have a short essay in the NRC Handelsblad, one of the Netherlands' daily newspapers. 

In 'De snelweg naar burnout' ('Highway to burnout') I discuss modern work in an era of globalisation, and the price paid for 'flexibility'.

The essay's translated into Dutch, and behind a paywall, but here's a sample in English:
[F]ree time is seen as a threat to profit, just as the impression of idleness threatens careers. Employers once complained about absenteeism, but ‘presenteeism’ is now making headlines: employees turning up even when ill, exhausted or amidst family crises. In short, and like all resources, workers are available. Why? Because being seen speaks of loyalty and productivity – it suggests that we cannot be discarded.
If workers cannot be supervised in cubicles or behind glass, they can be managed and monitored electronically: phone, SMS, email, chat, Skype, Twitter and Facebook. Alongside coercion or nudges from management, employees can also come to need the constant stimulation of digital media. Psychologists describe the "variable interval reinforcement schedule" of gambling: random rewards trigger compulsive behaviour. 
A similar pathology arises with the internet: we become habituated by its unyielding but unpredictable stimuli. Scientist Jaan Panksepp also writes about the ‘seeking’ state-of-mind. We get a kick, not out of the finding, but out of the looking: clicking from one website to another, refreshing Twitter or email, scrolling Facebook for hours. There is nothing wrong with seeking, but it can become a craving for the next needful novelty. 
Because of this, many employees spend their working day plugged in, but cannot turn off at home or on holiday. One report by American company Good Technology found that eighty percent of Americans surveyed were doing “almost another full day of work” every week in electronic overtime. Australians, while selling a "relaxed and comfortable" persona, recently put in two billion hours of unpaid labour in a year. (With one in three browsing the internet on the toilet.) Statistics Netherlands reports “burnout” – the opposite of engagement with work – amongst one in eight employees. 
Burnout is not solely to do with overwork or technology – it can also occur with conflicting values, lack of autonomy and resources, and poor work relationships. But constant availability can weaken engagement, and steal time for reflection on professional values, vocational freedom or good company. When we are always on the clock, we lose our power to think and do otherwise. The result can be chronic: anxiety, insomnia, exhaustion and illness -- to say nothing of mildewed friendships and frayed families.
(Photo: Marja Pronk)

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