The Price of (Bogus) Productivity

We have spoken here before of the Productivity Trick, and we’re going to speak of it again. For those of you who may not be up to speed on the Productivity Trick, it’s easy enough to explain.

When economic pundits and the reporters who feed off them go into shivers of ecstasy whenever they mention the astounding rise of the rate of productivity in this country, they tend to focus on technological advances. There are two obvious problems with this, however, that nobody is talking about. The first is that technology may be helpful more often than not, but just barely. Most of the productivity gains are wiped away by increased slowdowns or stoppages due to the failure rate of that very same technology, increasingly complicated ancillary activities related to keeping the technology up to date and functional, and the increasing number of baby-sitters the technology requires.

That isn’t the one we’re interested in today, though. Today we’re interested in the other half: workers. Studies show that they’re doing more with less. Here’s what the studies ignore: it’s killing them.

A short case in point: A well-known Massachusetts defense contractor in the 90’s wanted to increase its profits. It did so in the usual way: it fired a shitload of people–more than a quarter of the workforce. At the time I happened to be dating a woman in their Quality Control Dept. She was not laid off. Six months later, in its annual report, the company was bragging about a significant productivity increase since the layoffs–an increased production output yet with only 3/4 the number of employees as previously. It got in the papers. The corporation put it down to technological advances and more ‘efficient’ management techniques, and the local paper dutifully reported what the corporation had told them. From inside the company, though, it looked very different.

Before the layoffs, my girlfriend–call her ‘L’–had been putting in about 45 hrs/wk, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. The layoffs slashed her dept by 20%, and when they were over she found herself saddled with all the jobs that three other people had been doing before. Now she was working 80 hrs/wk–and, of course, no overtime because she had been given a ‘supervisory title’ as a result of all the extra work.

She was swamped; she couldn’t keep up with it. Her desk was piled high with papers and projects for which she was responsible but for which she had no time since most of it was eaten up by dealing with crises arising from the lay-offs: there were fewer inspectors, fewer workers, everybody was rushed, more mistakes were being made and ways had to be found to correct them. Faulty parts were getting through the abbreviated inspections; sometimes a whole line’s production had to be scrapped because of a flaw there hadn’t been anybody there to catch. The real supervisors–The Suits, guys who had never worked on a line in their lives and couldn’t have told you where the beginning of it was if you didn’t point it out to them–were putting pressure on everyone, badgering them, claiming they were slacking off because they were pissed about the lay-offs.

They weren’t pissed–they were scared. The Suits never once considered that doubling and even tripling their employees’ daily work load might be the cause of the chaos, that maybe they’d hired those people they’d just canned because they needed them to do the job right and what they were seeing was a result of those folks not being there. No, it was worker ‘malingering’ because the prevailing corporate fad (read: ‘fantasy’) was that everybody had hired too many people and leaner was better. It was certainly meaner.

‘We’re getting rid of the fat.’ Remember that mantra? Well, that translated into more work and longer hours for the same–or possibly less–pay for the slim cadre of employees who were left. It was a different version of the old ‘speed up the line’ game. This time, instead of trying to work your employees to death getting the same number of people to put out a lot more product than was reasonable or efficient, you tried to work your employees to death by putting out the same amount of product with far fewer employees than was reasonable of efficient.

Inside of three months, L’s dept was in ruins. There were arguments in the offices and fights on the floor. Product quality was sliding downhill so fast nobody could keep up with it. The govt was sending more and more back to be re-done or replaced even as it gave the company new contracts as a reward for their amazing productivity increase. People started to get sick more often–a lot more often–and absenteeism went through the roof. L began to suspect that some of the mistakes were deliberate sabotage–an attempt to get some relief from the pressure. She’d been there almost a decade and had never seen deliberate sabotage before.

A few months after that, she quit. She was exhausted, irritable, used up. She couldn’t take any more. It was killing her. Not everybody had that option, though. And they’re paying the price.

American workers are stressed out, and in an unforgiving economy, they are becoming more so every day.

Sixty-two percent say their workload has increased over the last six months; 53 percent say work leaves them “overtired and overwhelmed.”

Even at home, in the soccer bleachers or at the Labor Day picnic, workers are never really off the clock, bound to BlackBerries, cellphones and laptops. Add iffy job security, rising health care costs, ailing pension plans and the fear that a financial setback could put mortgage payments out of reach, and the office has become, for many, an echo chamber of angst.

It is enough to make workers sick – and it does.

Decades of research have linked stress to everything from heart attacks and stroke to diabetes and a weakened immune system. Now, however, researchers are connecting the dots, finding that the growing stress and uncertainty of the office have a measurable impact on workers’ health and, by extension, on companies’ bottom lines.

Workplace stress costs the nation more than $300 billion each year in health care, missed work and the stress-reduction industry that has grown up to soothe workers and keep production high, according to estimates by the American Institute of Stress in New York. And workers who report that they are stressed, said Steven L. Sauter, chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors Branch of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, incur health care costs that are 46 percent higher, or an average of $600 more per person, than other employees.

“The costs are significant,” Dr. Sauter said, adding, “Those are just the costs to the organization, and not the burden to individuals and to society.”

This has been going on for almost 20 years and nobody seems to have given a damn in all that time. After all, productivity–and corporate profits–are up and that’s all that counts.

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