The Eos life~work resource centre: Briefing note #3
Safe and dangerous organisations
Effects of UK work cultures on individuals and families since the Recession
Presentation to the UK Forum for Organisation Health, 20 February 1997
Career counselling discussions with some 400 people from 1990 to 1997 led me to conclude that many organisations are becoming increasingly hazardous to the well-being of employees, their families and communities, while healthier work cultures produce a win-win situation for people and their organisations.
There is a complex, two-way interaction between personal life and work performance. This can be productive or destructive for the individual who has to manage this interface and its competing priorities. (Refer also Managing life-work boundaries). Individuals and organisations also exist in wider social and economic environments which can enhance or exacerbate specific work and family situations.
The following two tables contrast characteristics of safe and dangerous organisations. Table A contrasts the effects of different cultures in the workplace. Table B indicates their effects on home life. Alternative interpretations are welcome.
TABLE A: Contrasting situations in the workplace
Using best skills, role suits personality, high self respect
Under-used skills, misemployed, role strain (unsuited), low confidence, frustrated
Supportive for work & personal pressures. Cohesive, synergy, dynamic, adaptable. Mutual encouragement.
Isolated, unsupportive when under pressure. In highly stressed organisations co-workers scapegoat and / or victimise weaker ones
Efforts explicitly valued
Efforts not valued, or criticised
Long hours. Overtime culture. Anti-social hours (weekends, callouts)
Stable, long term contracts
Insecure, no contract, fear of job loss
Stable, moderate to high
income, pension & benefits
Erratic, low paid, no pension or benefits, late payments.
Mental Health at work (eg Stress tolerance and resilience to non-work traumas)
Higher tolerance of stress.
Stimulated by change.
Spare capacity when domestic pressures increase (eg illness, bereavement)
Chronic anxiety, no spare capacity, on a short fuse. Fear of change. Work stress compounds non-work traumas into depression, anger or violence.
Work Quality & Performance
High quality, optimum performance, strategic thinking
Adaptable to changing opportunities & environment
Stress -impaired performance (managers & staff) including tunnel vision, poor concentration, leads to frequent errors of judgment.
Management errors create more work problems. Staff errors affect product quality and safety (accidents). High level of sickness absence & turnover.
Table B: Contrasting impacts of work on personal life
Characteristics Safe Organisations Dangerous organisations
Happy - well motivated, positive. Spare energy for family
Stressed and depressed. Tired, no spare energy. Negative.
Calm, cheerful, supportive
Unstable - short temper, anger, potentially violent
High, spare funds for investment. Long term financial security from salary and pension.
Low, no spare funds, debt, negative equity. No (or low) pension prospects. No savings - long term insecurity
Comfortable. Luxuries. Holidays. Regular sport and leisure. Time with the family.
Time for learning & personal development.
Day to day problem - limited food, poor home and car maintenance (safety risk). No holidays. Minimal leisure / fitness time. No time with the family (home after children go to bed, no household support for partner. Escape behaviour - alcohol etc.
Average to good.
Lower morbidity, higher life expectancy.
Frequent stress related psychosomatic illness - eg stomach disorders, exhaustion. Poor diet disorders. Low resistance to infection.
More vulnerable to chronic illness (ME, heart conditions etc.)
Effects on partner
Scope for partner to develop own interests and fulfillment
Severe strain on relationships increasing marriage breakdown, sometimes domestic violence. Partner priority: survival of home
Effects on children
Good role models, shared interests and leisure, stable
supportive relationships. Good environment for developing study and work motivation. Self control.
Negative role models - few shared interests. Little quality leisure/holidays. Poor coping strategies, abuse, violence, frustration. Out of control
Effects on community
Spare time to invest in community activities - PTA, neighbourhood schemes, civic participation. Social support in family.
No spare time or contribution from parents. Wild children with survival rules - fight steal. Social support in gangs. Escape behaviour - drugs etc.
These observations are based on 10-20 hour life/career counselling programmes including psychological assessments (personality MBTI, interpersonal behaviour FIRO-B, aptitude tests, Strong or CISS vocational interests and OSI stress questionnaire), and detailed life histories based on lifeline and biographic interviews.
Dangerous organisations in this context include casual work environments where there is no stable employing organisation hence including periods of unemployment.
Remedies are not easy, though the benefits of safe organisations on individuals and families offer some objectives to work towards for the rest. They may include:
- Incentives to employers to provide more stable employment contracts
- Restoring employment protection legislation to increase job security and fair wages, particularly to part time work (recent European Court ruling favours this)
- Modified redundancy entitlements to start progressively from 1 week employment upwards. The 2 year threshold encourages many employers to employ staff on less than 2 year contracts.
- Controls over excessive working hours.
- Economic conditions and incentives to enable more stable operation of small employers eg lower business rates, lower commercial property rents, easier availability of capital for developing small businesses.
Examples of Safe Organisations
Hard to find - mainly Japanese companies and UK companies with Japanese connections eg Rover. Also some other overseas employers eg US owned hi-tech companies (not all of them), and some French companies. These all come from cultures where employees are still respected resources. Also some new, modern organisations which have become financially successful eg in IT and other consultancies. And some parts of the armed forces.
Examples of Dangerous organisations
These include many small businesses eg urban manufacturing companies (eg garments), retailing organisations (including large ones due to Sunday opening), larger companies which have re-engineered by business efficiency experts. Clients seen from recently privatised public sector organisations and agencies report similar dangerous work cultures.
Many parts of the public sector are developing increasingly dangerous work cultures. These include Health and Further Education where senior managers have been appointed from the private sector with severe cost-cutting mandates from government. Also in Local Authorities subject to severe rate capping. Other organisations with increasingly dangerous work cultures include banks and financial services (relatively good but with less job security), companies taken over by mergers and acquisitions and even some professions (eg the Law).
These observations were offered to Occupational Health professionals in February 1997 as a basis for discussion and comparison with their own experience in public and private sector organisations. The new UK Government Election elected in May 1997 include a manifesto commitment to review "the effects of working life on families". This made progress in 1998 with new working hours legislation and the establishment of the National Work-Life Forum.
Reports of other research into safe and dangerous working cultures in UK and other countries would be appreciated. Tour comments or experiences are welcome on the Eos Life-Work Forum. or Email details to Dai Williams at email@example.com
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