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Exploitation and Punishment: How Labor Makes Us Unhappy and Inadequate
Exploitation and Punishment: How Labor Makes Us Unhappy and Inadequate

The cult of workaholism is not slowing down. We characterize ourselves only through professional identity, we consider senseless processing a virtue (and not a punishment), we think with horror about retirement and do not know what to do with ourselves outside the office.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called it “engaging in the game,” where people, contrary to all common sense, spare no effort and resources for work that brings them little satisfaction and happiness. How labor consumes our individuality, turns us into control freaks and just cogs in a ruthless corporate mechanism - in an excerpt from the book "The Swift Turtle: Not Doing as a Way to Achieve the Goal."

Stress and control

[…] Benjamin (not his real name) has been a senior editor at an educational literature publishing house for quite some time. A colleague of his, who had been with the company for a couple of years, was promoted to publisher and she became his boss. At first, they got along, but the further, the stronger her desire to control every step of Benjamin became. “It seemed to me that she needed to assert herself in a new position, and she intervened in my every decision,” says Benjamin.

Control by the leader intensified, as did the degree of pressure on Benjamin. Although her job was to keep track of only key issues, her boss demanded that she be privy to all the details of his work, including his area of ​​expertise. She also started making changes, often at the last moment, which meant extra work for Benjamin and the entire team. The more she tried to intervene and reveal flaws, the more Benjamin pulled back and tried to hold on to the information. As a result, mutual distrust was created, and Benjamin felt that he lacked the authority, creativity and motivation to work effectively.

With a change of environment or in a situation of uncertainty, the level of stress rises, and we feel more dependent on circumstances. This is what leads us to try to tighten control in order to get rid of the feeling of helplessness.

Control seems to be a defense, an antidote to the unknown, and a guarantee of certainty. Like Benjamin's boss, people can abuse power and adopt an authoritarian leadership style.

The desire to grab onto something really important and the willingness to fight for it is quite natural. But there is a risk here: trying to control the result, we can destroy exactly what is of greatest value. In addition, there is a danger that our actions will become strained and insincere attempts to achieve results without following the natural course of things.

This problem arises from the tendency to overestimate the degree of control over what is happening. Psychologist Ellen Langer calls this the illusion of control, which increases in stressful and adversarial situations. To think that we have control over all the most important factors of success is a mistake, which can be illustrated by the idea "It will work out or not, it depends only on me." If we consider that good grades, promotion or success in life depend only on us, then the only question is how to work harder and control the situation in order to get what we want. Ultimately, however, fate depends on our will much less than we would like.

Static identity

[…] After becoming CEO of the Australian non-profit organization VICSERV, Kim Koop began taking part in meetings with key partners. Her task was to protect the interests of members of the organization, for which she often had to contradict the positions of the participants, argue, object and express alternative opinions."It was a very necessary thing, and it worked out well for me." One fine day, the chairman unexpectedly and without any explanation gave up his role and offered it to Kim. She did not understand why they were asking her about it, but agreed.

“Then I regretted it,” she recalls. “As chairman, I was terrible. I constantly intervened in the discussion and, as usual, argued and stuck to my line. The stakes were high, I could not throw off my usual role and stood firm. " Kim did not understand how her behavior affected the course of the meeting. Later, she realized that in her new role of chairman, she should have adhered to a more neutral and balanced position, listened to the speakers and direct the course of the discussion, and not express or defend a certain point of view. “Unfortunately, it didn't work out for me. This experience was a wake-up call for me. For all his pain, he helped me understand that I need to correlate my role with a specific situation and each time I should think properly whether it is worth acting or it is better to restrain the horses."

As we become accustomed, like Kim, to our role, we risk letting her define our identity. We become the personification of the responsibilities and expectations that arise from this role, and we lose the ability to see how our actions correspond to the situation.

Without distinguishing between ourselves and our position, we begin to attach too much importance to our work and to base our self-esteem on it. In the event of an unexpected job loss, this is dangerous.

When Jeff Mendahl was fired from a startup, it was more painful for him to lose his job, not his source of income. “I turned out to be unnecessary and easily replaceable. And who am I if I don't work? By dismissing me, as it were, they pointed out my worthlessness."

Jeff felt the need to find a new job as soon as possible in order to restore his self-esteem and self-esteem. He did not want his family to tell others that he was fired and now he is unemployed. “The stigma of the unemployed in my industry is the kiss of death. Everything is very serious. I remember that I fell into a severe depression and worked through the situation with a psychotherapist."

As in many other areas of activity, position and status are of great importance in the IT industry. “It is customary here to collect information about what company you are now in, what you are responsible for, and about all the positions in which you have ever worked. Most potential employers don't care what kind of person you are, the main thing is what you do now and what you did before,”explains Jeff.

[…] In the modern world, each person is a “goal in himself”. In his book A Brief History of Thought, the philosopher Luc Ferry writes that the meaning of a person is determined by what he has done and achieved for himself. Successful results of activity become the main source of identity.

As Jeff's story shows, simply equating one's identity with the job position makes a person dangerously vulnerable to the pressures of the environment in which they work.

Cruel game

Ioana Lupu and Laura Empson work at the Sir John Cass Business School in London. In their scholarly paper, Illusion and Refining: The Rules of the Game in the Accounting Industry, they examine "how and why experienced independent professionals agree to an organization's demands to work overtime." The authors cite the works of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and agree with his concept of "illusion" - the phenomenon of "involvement in the game" of individuals who do not spare their own efforts and means for this. “Game” is a field of social interactions in which people compete for specific resources and benefits.

Lupu and Empson argue that "the dysfunction of doing and being absorbed in work is that it subtly robs us of our independence and makes it impossible to separate our identity from the identity that originated at work."Their research on audit firms has shown that experienced professionals are better at playing by the rules of the game as they climb the corporate ladder. However, at the same time, they increasingly fall under the power of "illusion" and lose the ability to question both the game itself and the efforts expended on it. It is the result of repetitive actions and rituals that create an unconscious urge to reinforce the rules of the game.

People begin to believe that they can drive themselves to achieve goals, and they fall into a kind of voluntary slavery.

Overwork, overcontrol and loss of purpose, which occurs as a result of meaningless activity, all lead to negative consequences. Where does our dysfunctional relationship with doing come from? Why do we do what we do?

Labor as punishment

[…] In his 1904 essay Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber wrote that Martin Luther and John Calvin considered the Christian's duties to be hard work, dedication and discipline. Hard work was seen as a source of righteousness and a sign of God's chosenness. This ideology spread throughout Europe and beyond, to the North American and African colonies. Over time, hard work became an end in itself.

"The Puritans turned labor into a benefactor, apparently forgetting that the Lord created it as a punishment,"

- The New York Times journalist Tim Crider quipped in his article "The Business Trap".

French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus showed the absurdity of meaningless works in his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." The Greek gods sentenced Sisyphus to roll a heavy stone up the mountain, which, barely reaching the top, rolled down over and over again. Waste work is not only absurd but also harmful. Until the 19th century. in England it was used as a punishment for prisoners: performing difficult, repetitive and often meaningless tasks had to break their will. In particular, the prisoner had to lift a heavy cast-iron cannonball to chest level, move it a certain distance, slowly put it on the ground, and then repeat what was done over and over again.

An unhealthy attitude toward doing is shaped by the economic myth that more is better. According to Betty Sue Flowers, this is the most common misconception of our time. In the article “Duels of Business Myths,” published in 2013 by Strategy + Business Magazine, Flowers suggests that

the economic myth is closely related to the most powerful human instinct - the parental one. This is his inferiority. "When children grow up, they are allowed to live on their own, while product development is an endless task."

It warns of the dangers of one-sided success assessments, such as revenue, profit, or market share.

Demands for increased productivity can also come from the workers themselves. Since material and non-material incentives are based on the performance of work, there is a deep psychological need to increase its volume. But when is “enough” really enough? The fears generated by a system that encourages growth will never be fully neutralized by current advances. From early childhood we were taught that the accumulated material wealth can give a feeling of security, reliability and well-being. The idea of ​​having more looks quite reasonable from a historical point of view. The ability to accumulate resources in the form of food and water in case of famine or drought was critical to survival, but today it does not benefit us.

The belief that people need to work harder and longer to survive seems socially conditioned, especially in countries with rising income inequality, rising food costs and low employment. But the point is that

the tendency to recycle continues even after all basic needs have been met. In particular, it is fueled by a thirst for consumption.

Our poor relationship with work is reinforced by the vocabulary used in the work setting and the image of the organization as a mechanism. F.W. Taylor's theory of scientific methods of control and the effectiveness of movements formed the idea of ​​an organization as a kind of controlled device. In his book Discovering the Organizations of the Future, Frederic Laloux notes the engineering slang that continues to this day: “We talk about units and levels, inflows and outflows, efficiency and effectiveness, that it is necessary to press the levers and move the arrows, accelerate and slow down, assess the scale of the problem and weigh the solution, we use the terms "information flows", "bottlenecks", "reengineering" and "downsizing" ".

The image of the mechanism dehumanizes the organization and the people working in it. If we consider it as a mechanism, then more intense round-the-clock operation is sufficient to increase the output volume.

The image of the mechanism dehumanizes the organization and the people working in it. If we consider it as a mechanism, then more intense round-the-clock operation is sufficient to increase the output volume.

If something does not work out, you can replace parts, reconfigure or reverse engineer the system.

People are perceived as interchangeable and removable parts that can always be replenished. Realizing your own values ​​in relation to the values ​​and culture of the work environment allows you to question and challenge existing paradigms. The words and images used are very important: they can bring people closer or dehumanize them.

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