What purpose does work serve for individuals and society?
Work gives people a secure place in the community. It also allows them to displace narcissistic, aggressive or even erotic drives onto work and onto the human relations connected with work; it is indispensable to the preservation and justification of one’s existence in society. Work is a source of special satisfaction if it is freely chosen.
John Mole in his delightful paperback: Management Mole (1989) writes about his experience of being made redundant at the end of his first day at work.
At half-past four the phone rang. It was Jenny from the agency. I thought it was nice of her to call and see how I was getting on.
‘I’m afraid they don’t want you any more, John. You’re not quite what they’re looking for. It’s nothing personal. Hello? Are you there?’
An initial dumb disbelief was replaced by a turmoil of emotion. With the logical part of my mind I was grateful I would not have to come back to this funny little cubicle tomorrow and sort out confirmation slips until the weekend. I was grateful for the anecdote of how I was fired on my first day. I was grateful for the new experience. I was interested in how I should react. But these dispassionate thoughts were overwhelmed by the surge of anger and resentment and humiliation and hurt that welled up from the primitive part of the brain.
‘Not good enough for you, am I?’ I said to Greta, trying to keep my voice from sounding squeaky.
‘I’m sorry. I should have told you myself.’
‘How was I supposed to know what you expected of me? Telepathy?’
‘It’s nothing personal. Honestly.’
It is bad form in many companies to talk about redundancies or dismissals or firings or the sack. Unwanted employees are ‘let go’, as if they had been longing to escape, a euphemism for the unpleasant, like passing on or eternal rest. I once went on a day’s course on how to ‘let people go’. The trick is to make them feel it is the best thing that has happened in their lives; that they are being made redundant through no fault of their own, that their pay-off is better than anyone else is getting. Above all you should make it sound as if the job is being got rid of, not the person, that you should leave them with self-esteem and self-confidence intact. This advice certainly makes the firer feel better. When I had to tell people that their jobs were no longer needed it helped me get over the awkwardness to tell them they were wonderful people and there was nothing personal in our decision.
But it was personal. It was deeply and devastatingly personal. I was shaken by being fired. Looking back on it now it seems trivial and amusing but at the time it made me depressed. Since leaving school I had thought that if necessary, I could always go out and get a job, any job, to earn a living. This conviction now seemed ill-founded. If I felt like this after a day, how would I have felt after a lifetime? Being thrown out of a temping job after a day is not in the same league as being thrown out of a career and a livelihood. But it was a taste.
Work is motivated by the need for the efficient use of one’s muscular and intellectual capabilities and results in a well-integrated ego which enables people to control or alter their environment. In our society, work. It is a source of self-esteem, of social gratification, the fulfilment of an ego-ideal, the attainment of the role of mature adult, the useful and pleasurable utilisation of time and the achievement of psycho-social success. Getting a job, holding a job, advancing in a job, retiring from a job, or losing a job become significant human concerns.
Work can be regarded as an expression of aggression and destructive energies which are sublimated in work. These energies have to be fused in some way in society, otherwise societies could not survive. Work represents a fight against something, an attack upon the environment. The farmer ploughs the earth, he harrows it, tears it, pulverises it; he pulls out weeds, he cuts them or burns them; he poisons insects and fights against drought and floods. To be sure, all this is done to create something, that is why it is called work and not rage. The destructiveness is selectively directed and a net ‘product’ is obtained.
Work is both a psychological and a sociological concept. Work is mostly done in groups and is therefore essentially a social activity. Our society is primarily job-minded. Work socialises and civilises people. Work may be viewed as fulfilling a religious duty; it may be pleasurable, creative or have an inter-personal texture. Threats to livelihood and self-preservation are experienced by deep fears and feeling of loss and grief. Redundancy results in profound bereavement, not from the loss of others, but from the loss of self. Familiar habits of thought and behaviour no longer make sense. Everything has gone and bereavement destroys the individual as if they were mourning their own death. The degree of intensity of involvement in one’s job has a bearing on the individual’s capacity to survive the loss of a job. For many people, their work is linked to their identity and self-esteem – ‘this is who I am’.
The loss of a job, therefore, means that the whole structure of the meaning of their life collapses. People are at their happiest, strongest and most creative when the external world confirms their best and most hopeful images of themselves. By extension, they are at their most miserable, disturbed and weakest when the world confirms their worst fears about themselves. Redundancy and unemployment result in many losses, particularly if the job was enjoyed, but even if it was not, the opportunity to earn money, the bestowing of status, the fact that time was ordered in a familiar way and most important of all, that the job gives meaning and purpose to a person’s life through work.
Studies of the impact of unemployment on individuals and families reveal a similarity to the description of grief after bereavement in the different phases of reaction after the loss of a job: the phase of shock: the phase of denial, the phase of anxiety, distress and anger and the final phase of resignation and adjustment. For the unemployed, as time goes on they develop an inertia that is psychologically debilitating. This inertia includes depression, boredom and laziness and feeling de-skilled and unworthy. The life of unemployment is characterised by increased physical and mental ill-health, increased numbers of suicide, marital strife, divorce, alcoholism, drugs misuse and death.
Shame is strongly associated with unemployment. After a loss of job, shame appears to be most intense, because people have grown up with a work ethic that dictated that one would never expect to be out of work until what used to be considered a normal age for retirement. Shame is defined as a feeling of humiliation, excited by consciousness of guilt or short-coming, of having made oneself, or being made, ridiculous, or having offended against propriety, modesty or decency. Shame is a sense of displeasure about the status of oneself, of having no significance. The experience of shame is one of shrinking away from others and pulling inward and downward. The centre of the self is diminished and the shamed want to disappear or to hide because of loss of dignity and loss of power. Shame grows with unnatural vigour when aggression cannot be used to counteract it.
Without work and going out to work, people are thrown back on themselves.
‘Where are we going?’ said Pooh, hurrying after him, and wondering whether it was going to be an Explore or a What-Shall-I-Do-About-You-Know-What.
‘Nowhere’ said Christopher Robin.
So they began going there.
This article is part of the series: “All research is consultancy; all consultancy is research”
The title of which describes the work of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations as an integrated social science research and consultancy organisation. Research and consultancy are two sides of the same coin, the ‘coin’ being a deep curiosity about the human condition and a drive to study all aspects of it in order to advance knowledge of society and people that leads to improvement. Study and change are basic to the Institute’s aims that are expressed via high-level professional research and consultancy activity.
Some clients of the Tavistock Institute call for our independent research capability and expect to move forward by implementing the research or evaluation results themselves; others call for consultancy in order for change to be produced before fully knowing what the problem is or what needs changing. In both situations, the Tavistock Institute approaches assignments in two stages – first, researching the designated problem, and secondly, engaging the client in partnership to resolve the problem through a research and consultancy and change process.
Over the next few months, we will be posting a number of articles that describe important aspects of work with individuals, teams, organisations, partnerships, coalitions and federations. From a very wide field of themes, we will select examples of work that we think will interest readers.
- The first article “Tavistock, we have a problem ……!” about lifting the leadership capabilities of the 2nd tier of organisational leaders, appeared in January.
- The second article “It cannot be us; it must be them”, is about amplification peaks and stock-level swings in the supply chain.
- In April we posted an article concerning the impact of redundancy.
- In May we hope to post an article titled: “The client speaks” which will describe the experience of receiving consultancy from the client’s point of view.
We trust that readers will enjoy reading the stories of the work of the Tavistock Institute that spring from the experience of researchers and consultants and of their clients.
‘Redundancy Kills’ is a short version of ‘What redundancy does to people’, published in the Journal of the British Association of Psychotherapists, Autumn 1997.