When I started my working life, I was sent out into the world with the words “Remember, there’s no sentiment in business.” I suspect a lot of people live according to that motto. Only recently I heard of a manager who replied to complaints from an employee with: ‘Get over it. This is not your family. It’s just business.” Genuine objectivity and adult behaviour is one thing. But surely we don’t want our working life to degenerate into the disregard of our own and others’ vulnerability?
What is it that triggers this attitude? Why is it that warmth, kindness, and tolerance are considered to have no place in the office, or on the shop floor? Are people less vulnerable at work than they are at home? Profit-before-people goals often motivate positive-sounding strategies, such as increased customer satisfaction, cost-saving drives and sustainability programmes, but they can’t be allowed to generate stress and anxiety – which seem to be increasingly frequent side-effects. When ‘higher performance’ is pursued at the cost of people’s health and happiness, whom is it ultimately serving?
Burn-out and beyond
The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions[i] states: “The main risk factors for work-related stress include heavy
workloads, long working hours, lack of control and autonomy at work, poor relationships with colleagues, poor support at work and the impact of organisational change.” In a 2005 survey, the Foundation found that 22% of European workers suffered from stress, lower back ache, muscular pain and fatigue, and that about a quarter of those employed in Europe were exposed to job strain (between 13% in Sweden and 43% in Greece). The figures have risen since then, and a much wider range of illnesses is now linked to job stress.
This cannot be termed efficiency, by any stretch of the imagination. Quite apart from the harrowing effect on individuals, it costs companies and countries millions in lost working hours and health care.
Where does all this leave genuine efforts to achieve personal ambitions and reach company-defined targets? Of course companies have to be profitable, in order to stay afloat. Of course there is nothing wrong with encouraging employees to improve their efficiency, stretch their capacities, and reach for goals. But does this truly necessitate shorter and shorter business plan cycles? Do margins have to be quite so high, to maintain sustainability? Are shareholders in multinational corporations – many of whom are perhaps not aware of – or interested in – how their investments return profits – really the best group to be allowed to drive company policy and business strategies? Is modern business degenerating into a new version of the bad old days of slavery and bribery?
Of course ‘big business’ is not always, and not only, the Big Bad Wolf. But it is perhaps wiser to be aware that the outcome of false objectivity – aka ‘just business’ – within companies is disappointment, distrust, and distress. In the long term, ‘no sentiment’ – which is so often translated into no emotion, no feeling, no consideration for others – is not even in the interests of companies’ leaders and shareholders. The problem is, even in the shady world of thieves and robbers, people tend to believe they’re acting in a justifiable, perhaps even reasonable way. In many cases, they don’t stop to consider the morality or justifiability of their actions.They wouldn’t do what they do otherwise. It’s a case of backward reasoning. We all believe that the fruits of our labours should make us happy. And if they don’t, we either have to try harder, or it’s the other person’s fault!
Nowhere to turn
At the heart of every problem there is usually a conflict. A dilemma. On the face of it, the dilemma is easily solved. You simply repress all awareness of it, and keep trying harder to get what you want in the same way as always. Your image is at stake. Your job is at stake. Your happiness is at stake. Or the problem is that someone else is making things difficult, and needs to be punished, or changed. So you run faster (and end up stressed and exhausted), or get others to run faster (so that they end up stressed and exhausted). It doesn’t work.
Understanding how we create stress for ourselves provides the antidote to more stress and anxiety. In the words of the song, we need to take a moment and just be still. [ii]
Mindfulness can become a kind of active meditation, with heightened awareness of our thoughts and emotions fuelling enquiry into how they govern our behaviour. We all accumulate layers of forgotten – though active! – beliefs and assumptions about life and work in general. The first step towards change is finding out exactly what they are and how they’re affecting us now, in the moment.
In spite of my parents’ advice on the work environment, I’ve found that the places where I was most productive and efficient where those where I most enjoyed my work and the contact and cooperation with my colleagues. The myth that work and friends need to be kept separate often only leads to loneliness and isolation; at least half of my longest-lasting friendships were formed at work. I’ve also observed and experienced the results of working where the policy of excluding ‘sentiment’ from business prevailed: considerable difficulty and stress, and very little job satisfaction.
We don’t need to act on harmful maxims. Or continue to believe all we were told as children – it may never have been true! That’s what I like about enquiry. You can find out what’s true for you now, and break free from old habits and beliefs. It’s life changing.
[i]© European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2010