This is the tittle from the latest book by Jeffrey Pfeffer, an essay –almost a manifesto– that questions how come we have ended up paying so much attention to environmental sustainability and so little to human sustainability.
In other words, what is more relevant? environmental pollution or pollution driven by organizations, something he calls “social pollution”. As Pfeffer argues, using the executive Bob Champan, about the American case…(certainly a more worrying case than our own case) “[…] 74% of all illness are chronic. The biggest cause of chronic illness is stress, and the biggest cause of stress is work” (p.190).
Even when the book looks comprehensively to many work aspects, I think it is particularly relevant to refer to the overwork epidemic (i.e., working longer and harder). This is linked to what sociologists have termed the intensification of work, a global phenomenon affecting all type of workers, but in a very special way those what we tend to consider as some kind of priviledged ones: the knowledge work professionals.
We don’t need to refer to the extreme case of Investment Banking and the so-called “magic roundabout”, whereby a taxi takes workers home, waits outside while they shower and change and drives them back to the office to begin another working day…The work intensification is extended across the board and more than common in the still glamorous Silicon Valley, where as Pfeffer describes, operates the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, a mobile medical facility (a van) for tech workers, that don’t seem to have time to visit their doctors. The type for worker are 30-year-old engineers with 50-year-old bodies, potbellies, curved spines, reduced vitality and elevated risks of diabetes and heart disease, among others.
Even when the American case could easily be thought as an extreme one driven by workaholism (Pffeffer mentions that 50% of Americans don’t take their full holidays, 62% work when sick, 25% do not qualify for paid vacations…) these dynamics are, nevertheless, in sync with the work intensification waves that have been spreading across Europe and later Spain during the recent decades.
In Spain, a country still sterotyped by “siesta”, work intensity (effort at work) has grown close to 50% between 2000 and 2015 (European Working Conditions Surveys). As we can imagine this implies a huge impact on people…(our own research of the Spanish case suggests that it is now the single most important determinant of worker’s health)…But impact also reaches organizations, reducing creativity, increasing mistakes and worsening decisions…A severe drop of quality in a broad sense.
Of course the harm on people goes deeper… affecting relations and health, frequently mediated by sleep disorders and also related, as Pfeffer suggests, with stimulants surge (between 2005-2011, emergency room visits related to nonmedical use of prescription stimulants tripled in the 18-34 age group).
The causal web of the overwork and work intensification process is certainly complex and contingent, but Pfeffer highlights the need to signal compromise in a competitive context where being busy equals status…This is like saying that the symbolic sphere, more than the structural one, seems to be directly involved, at least for this knowledge work professionals.
When and How will we be achieving the right visitibility for this huge and growing personal, organizational and societal problem? Pfeffer shows us the way forward.