Sunday, May 30, 2010

How Time was Stolen from American Workers and How We Can Get It Back

At one time, I worked with a lot of survivors of domestic violence. One of the things I learned in training for this work is how gradually abuse can creep up on the victim without her – or him – being aware of it as the abuser gradually conditions the victim to accept it. Consequently, people end up accepting treatment that amounts to attempted murder without questioning it. I believe something comparable has happened in the American workplace over the last few decades, with effects that are hardly less severe than those of chronic abuse.

According to economist and author Juliet Schor, the total number of hours Americans spend working has risen steadily by approximately half a percent per year since the 1980s. In terms of hours, the average American worker added 199 hours to his or her schedule between 1973 and 2000. This translates into 24 more 8-hour days or over 3 more 40-hour weeks per year. This is outrageous, yet hardly anyone seems to question it. In the 1970s, people were predicting that new technologies being developed would shorten the work week, which it very well could have. Between 1969 and 2000, the index of labor productivity per hour went up by 80%. In other words, workers could make 80% more stuff in the same amount of time as they had before. If, as a society, we had been content to maintain the same lifestyles we’d had in the 1960s, we could all have wound up working 20-hour weeks, leaving us more time for our families, communities, volunteer work, hobbies and interests while reducing the rate at which our planet was heating up.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Great New York Times article on Inactivity in the Office

Don't miss this great "Room for Debate" article in the NY Times today on the question of "Is All That Sitting Really Killing Us?" with opinions by five experts. The consensus seems to be, as I thought, that just a plain stand-up desk isn't good, as if you only use this, bad things start happening to your legs and feet, but that a desk that raises and lowers is good -- that what's best is what allows you to work in different positions. I was also heartened by a statement by James A. Levine, professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic that "a re-examination of our office culture is under way." Glad to know we're on the mark!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A couple of wonderful websites

While researching my blog post today, I discovered something fantastic. It's a website entitled The Early Office Museum. It's an online museum, a true work of art, filled with all sorts of wondrous photos and paintings of offices from ancient times to the twentieth century. I wish, wish, wish I had found this before I wrote the history part of my book. More on this later, but in the meantime, give yourself a treat and go take a look at it.

Also, visit the website for Take Back Your Time, a fantastic organization headed by John de Graaf, co-author of the popular book, Affluenza. This organization is working for changes in the laws that will guarantee workers a reasonable amount of paid vacation time and provide other protections to their right to have lives outside of work. Their latest newsletter is now online and talks about how shortening the work week will help to reduce unemployment, something I've been preaching about for a long time.

History of the Office 101: Scientific Management

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilberth Carey. It was about growing up in a family of twelve children and their parents, Frank, Sr. and Lillian Gilbreth, who were two of the original efficiency experts. Needless to say, the children lived highly regimented lives. They were required to fill out “process charts” on which they were supposed to check off boxes for washing their faces, brushing their teeth, etc. I still remember, in the fifth grade, making a chart like this for myself after reading about it, though I don’t think my own parents, who were not efficiency experts and had only two children, not twelve, ever looked at it.

The Gilbreths, along with Frederick Taylor, pioneered what was then a new field, which Taylor eventually called “scientific management.” It was all about figuring out the most efficient way to accomplish tasks so as to maximize production. To do this, they timed tasks with stopwatches and analyzed movies frame by frame. At first the tasks were mainly those done in factories, but eventually scientific management – also now known as “Taylorism” -- invaded offices as well as most other types of workplaces.

Its fundamental principles were as follows:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dealing with E-mail Onslaughts

When you arrive in the morning, there are forty of them waiting for you. By the time you’ve answered two or three, six more are waiting, and all the time you’re trying to work, notices of new ones keep popping up on your screen. If there’s anything in the office that can make you feel as though you’re being attacked by armies of malicious elves, it’s e-mail. But it doesn't have to wreck your day. Managing e-mail is all a matter of triaging, the way medical staff in an overloaded ER triage patients. Once you’ve got a logical system of directories, some good SPAM software, and a few habits in place, you’ll be able to calmly contend with whatever passes through your in-box, no matter how excessive the quantity. Here are a few tips:

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Crazymakers in the Office

As a psychotherapist who works part time as an administrative assistant, I’ve come to believe that many employees from CEO on down could have immensely happier workdays if someone taught them just a little bit about what most therapists call “personality disorders.” People with personality disorders have a life history of causing pain and misery to those around them while believing that they themselves are just fine. I call these people “crazymakers” because of the harmful effects they can have on the mental health of others.

What makes dealing with office crazymakers difficult is that most of us want to be good team players. When someone rubs us the wrong way, we assume that this is just because we have differences, and all we need to do is sit down and talk things out. Or we try to be extra nice to the person, telling ourselves that he or she is just having problems at home or under a lot of stress. With most people, these strategies work just fine. But not with crazymakers. The usual rules for building positive relationships will not work with them.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Empathy in the Office

Recently I started reading an extraordinary book called The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. It’s an ambitious 700-page volume that rethinks all of world history in terms of two concepts: empathy and entropy, both of which Rifkin claims have progressively increased over time. Rifkin shows how certain conditions – new sources of energy, new communications media, urbanization, increased contact between members of different groups – facilitate “empathy surges” – times when the overall progress of empathy, i.e., the ability of one human being to imagine what another human being feels, takes a giant leap forward. While these surges never last, as energy runs out due to entropy and civilizations decline, they leave traces to be reignited with the next surge, and thus, over time, Rifkin claims, the human race is becoming more and more empathic.

So far, I’ve only read about a third of this book, but already it’s made so many sparks go off in my head I feel like it’s the fourth of July. This guy is a fabulous big-picture thinker. And of course, his ideas have all sorts of implications for the office world, which I plan to spend the whole next year exploring.

Meanwhile, it’s set me thinking about empathy, a concept I first encountered when doing training at a crisis center where I volunteered for a couple of years before starting social work school. Trainings for volunteers in those days began with an “Empathy Weekend.” On Friday nights, volunteers were divided into small groups run by “empathy trainers.” The trainers explained to us what empathy was, and that empathizing with someone with a headache didn’t mean you had the headache yourself, which is sympathy, it meant being aware that the person was suffering, communicating your awareness to him or her and “validating feelings.”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Is Your Workload Unrealistic? How to Tell and What to Do

Do you regularly have a to-do list at the office that’s more than a page long? Has your in-box never, ever been empty? Do you spend the bulk of your time racing against the clock? Do you often stay late or take work home to try to catch up? Do you make more mistakes than you think you should? Does a technical breakdown or bureaucratic obstacle send you into a panic? If so, you may be struggling with an unrealistic workload.

Unrealistic workloads happen for a variety of different reasons. Here are some possibilities:

Your department is understaffed. This is probably the most common reason why workers may wind up overloaded. In today’s tight economy, it may be unavoidable for employers to cut staff and overload those who are left, but it’s a short-term solution that’s likely to lead to job turnover, absenteeism, and poor work quality, especially if the boss uses harsh management strategies to try to get more work out of people than is reasonable.  

If you think inactivity in the office isn't a problem . . .

check out this article from today's NYT!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Office Movies 101: Office Space

In this blog, a lot of what I do is write seriously about problems in the office world that others have dealt with only under the guise of humor. As with court jesters under medieval tyrants, it would seem that most creative people feel safe addressing the multiple challenges of office life only with satires that have grown increasingly bitter over the years. This doesn’t solve any of the problems, but it does help us to identify them, which
is half the battle. (For that reason, when I started researching Making Peace with Your Office Life, the first thing I read was not a book on organizational psychology but The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams. If you want to know what’s really going on, start with the humorists.)

In the first few minutes of the 1999 comedy, Office Space, one can identify a host of office issues. In those opening scenes, we see Peter, who appears to be suffering from a severe case of the office blues, driving to his office and starting his workday at Initech with his coworkers, Michael and Samir. Here are some of the challenges Peter encounters:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

God in the Office: Religion in the Workplace

Most of the world’s great religions were created in environments that were vastly different from today’s offices. In the office world, there are no bodhi trees for seekers to sit under waiting for enlightenment, no mountains or caves where prophets can rendezvous with The Almighty. At work we are cut off from sunsets and rainbows, starlight and moonlight, everything that connected the ancients with the gods and goddesses they believed created them. Instead, we have a world that appears to be totally under human control, in which bosses wielding nearly absolute power over our daily lives can easily become idols to whom we continually offer ritualistic, but spiritually empty sacrifices.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

They Just Keep Piling Up: Paper Management in the Office

You’re on a roll, putting together all the materials you need for a big proposal that has to be turned in by five o’clock. Everything’s going great until it’s time to scan in that handwritten letter from so-and-so. You’re sure it must be at the bottom of the pile on top of the credenza, but it’s not. A frantic search ensues, and an hour later you finally find the letter in a folder you’d thought was empty.

Poor paper management can be a major source of stress at the office, wasting huge amounts of precious time. A few papers thrown carelessly on top of a desk have a way of swelling into process-crippling piles and even, in some cases, to gargantuan oceans that may have serious emotional as well as vocational repercussions. Once your office is thoroughly deluged, you may get into a vicious circle, in which you waste so much time looking for things that you have no time to de-clutter.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Office Lit 101: Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener"

Someday, I’d love to pull together an anthology of office literature, assuming one doesn’t already exist, which would include everything from Melville and Dickens to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to Dilbert and “Office Space.” Often, I believe, literary artists have presented a far truer picture in poems, plays, stories, novels, cartoons, and films of office life as real people experience it than any nonfiction writer ever has. Thus, in this blog, I intend from time to time to take a look at one or another of these works and consider what it might have to teach us about the office world.

Our subject in this post is the classic, "Introduction to Fiction" story “Bartleby,” which I reread last night for the first time since teaching it in a community college course. The author, Herman Melville, is best known as the creator of Moby Dick, a huge, cosmic-symbolic adventure tale featuring a white whale, and it’s hard to imagine that its author would have anything to say about office life. Wondering what kinds of experience informed both works, I turned to the obvious place for answers – Wikipedia – and found that Melville spent his early adult years at sea having adventures and writing novels about them, then got married and spent some years in a cabin in the Berkshires writing his two greatest novels – Moby Dick and Pierre – during this time he also got to know Nathaniel Hawthorne -- then, in the 1860’s, he got a job in a customs house, where he wasted away for nineteen years and wrote hardly anything before finally escaping back to full-time writing. So, notwithstanding his sea voyages, Melville did spend a substantial chunk of time in an office, though most of it was long after the years he spent in the Berkshires, which was when he wrote “Bartleby.”

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Nature-deficit Disorder" and Office Work

“Nature-deficit Disorder” is not a diagnosis in DSM-IV but a phrase that Richard Louv uses in his landmark book, The Last Child in the Woods. Louv focuses on the importance of direct exposure to nature for children’s healthy physical and emotional development. He cites studies that show that exposure to nature may reduce AD/HD symptoms and also improve children’s cognitive capabilities as well as their resistance to negative stresses and depression.

“Nature-deficit disorder,” Louv writes, “describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.” But deficit, he goes on to say, is only one side of the coin. The other side is abundance. By becoming aware of the negative effects of nature-deficit disorder, he says, we also become aware of the powerful healing benefits of reconnection with nature.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Are You Climbing the Walls at Work? Dealing with Confinement

To repeat what I said in a previous post, during winter months, office workers may barely see the sun except on weekends. Being shut up in a building, often a single room or, worse yet, the infamous cubicle is, I believe, for many workers, one of the most depression-inducing aspects of the office situation. For one thing, it puts you more at risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder; for another, if you have a certain type of brain-wiring it
can make you feel claustrophobic and restless; finally, it can make getting along with coworkers more difficult due to “cabin fever,” similar to what happens to families when they’re boxed up during a snowstorm. This is perhaps why so many workers compare their offices to prisons.

Unless you’re telecommuting, you may believe that such feelings are unavoidable. But while it’s true that confinement is a fact of life for many office workers, it doesn’t necessarily have to set you up for depression. The key is to take constructive action to counter its effects. Here are some suggestions:

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Responsibilities of Office Workers

My last post was on the rights of office workers, but along with rights go responsibilities to the people we work for as well as to each other. Thus, I’ve put together a second list of the responsibilities of office workers. As with rights, I welcome other people’s ideas about what should be changed.

As office workers, we have a responsibility . . . 
  1. To perform the tasks for which we were hired to the best of our ability.
  2. To work the agreed upon hours whenever possible, clear all schedule adjustments with our supervisors, and refrain from abusing flex-time.
  3. To take care of our own physical and mental health.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Rights of Office Workers

At the risk of being labeled a troublemaker, I believe it’s time we office workers started thinking about our rights. Some people – especially some bosses -- might find this scary. The assumption is that if office workers become aware of their rights, they’ll soon start blowing up filing cabinets and dancing naked around the water cooler. Who can say where it might end?

Rest assured, I’m not advocating revolution, at least not anytime soon. But it seems to me that historically we office workers have not done nearly so good a job as our blue collar brothers and sisters at standing up for ourselves, and that this has led to many of us feeling – and even coming to believe – that we have no rights at all when we’re at work, especially in recent decades. Too often, employers have dealt with economic challenges at the expense of quality of life for their office workers, forcing people to work longer and
faster and in progressively less comfortable conditions. As I said, I believe it’s time we started thinking about our rights.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Artist in the Office

Karen is working on her fourth novel. Although her first three novels were published and received good reviews, none of them sold enough copies to allow her to quit her day job. Jack is a fine actor who has played lead roles in community theater productions, but he’s never managed to break into the professional scene. Sam would love to create sculptures for a living, but he has a family to support. All of these people are artists who hold nine-to-five office jobs.

People talented in the arts often end up in office jobs for several reasons. First, the arts are extremely competitive, and while opportunities to earn extra pocket money doing temporary work in the arts are fairly plentiful, those that provide the artist with a decent salary and benefits are rare. Also, achieving excellence in the arts takes lots of time and energy, and office jobs with regular hours and reasonable workloads may leave the worker with more of these than all-consuming professions such as teaching, law, or medicine. And artists, like everyone, need to support themselves and their families.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Delicious Traps: Food in the Office

I still remember the day I discovered the Ice Cream Machine. It was summer, a few weeks after I was hired for my current job. For my first few days, I’d been more-or-less oblivious to my surroundings, but then one afternoon on my way to the bathroom, I happened to glance down towards the end of the long hallway and there it was, all stainless steel and colorful decals, gleaming and beckoning: the Machine. Falling into a hypnotic state, I glided towards it, money in hand. After flattening a dollar-bill, forcing it into a metal slit, and pressing a button, I watched with amazement as the little vacuum-cleaner gizmo reached out to suck up the Eskimo pie, moved it clumsily forward, then released it down into the grab-bin, from which I eagerly snatched it up. As soon as the last, delicious mouthful of creamy chocolate had slid down my throat, however, I was overwhelmed by guilt and anxiety. How was I, a treatment-resistant compulsive overeater, ever going to resist the temptation of making this a daily habit?

Each of us has different dietary needs, and to those of us whose bodies crave sugar and fat, the typical office workday often consists of encounters with one food-trap after another. If this one doesn’t get you, the next one will. You go to a meeting, and spend the whole hour inwardly arguing with yourself about the plate of doughnuts in the center of the table. A coworker invites you out for lunch, and everything on the menu looks great and has a zillion calories. You go into the kitchen for some coffee and someone has left a plate of homemade cookies. You go down to the business office and there’s a candy dish on the counter. You take a break and somehow wind up at the candy machine – again. To the non-food-addicted worker, all of these potential treats are just a way of making work fun; to the food addict, their constant presence is a major stressor.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is Working in an Office Good or Bad for You? Part II. The Benefits

If you’re an office misfit like me, it may be hard for you to believe this, but hand-in-hand with the challenges that the typical office job poses to the worker’s health and well-being go aspects of the situation that can actually enhance them. Here are some of the benefits of having a job like yours:
Security: True, in today’s economy nobody’s job is completely secure. Nevertheless, having at least some degree of confidence that a given amount of money will arrive in the mail or appear on your bank statement at regular intervals can be beneficial, for however long it lasts. And having health insurance is a huge plus, not only because it reduces worry about what will happen if you get sick, but also because of the regular checkups it may pay for, not to mention appointments with a therapist or psychiatrist if you need them. Finally, as you head towards the retirement years, it’s good to know that the dollars are piling up in your pension fund. While the stresses and deprivations of office employment may be formidable, those of having no paycheck or benefits are likely to be even greater.

If you’ve ever been self-employed or worked as a homemaker, you know how difficult it can be to structure your own time. Although at the office, you may still have to prioritize tasks on your own, chances are other people may sometimes help you with this, if only by giving you deadlines. Knowing what you're to do when frees you from the stress of deciding on your own. And if nothing else, an office job with regular hours gives you a reason to get up in the morning, which is good for all of us.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is Working in an Office Good or Bad for You? Part I. The Challenges

As a mental health professional doing office work, I've been in a good position to assess the ways in which having an office job can be good for your health and well being and the ways it put them at risk. This post is to share my conclusions. It's actually one of two that go together. Here I’ll talk about the challenges, and in the next post, the benefits (yes, all you office misfits, there really ARE some!). So, without further ado, let me give you my list of all the challenges I can think of that the typical office job – especially at the bottom of the pyramid – poses to mind, body and soul (you may be able to think of others and, if so, please comment):

Confinement: Being shut up in a building, often a single room or, worse yet, the infamous cubicle is, I believe, for many workers, one of the most depression-inducing aspects of the office situation. For one thing, it puts you more at risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder due to lack of sunlight; for another, if you have a certain type of brain-wiring it can make you feel claustrophobic and restless; finally, “cabin fever,” similar to what happens to families when they’re boxed up during a snowstorm, may put a strain on all office interactions. Thus, is it any wonder that so many workers compare their office jobs to doing time in a penitentiary? 

Inactivity:  Not getting enough exercise is hazardous to your life and also to your mood, not to mention your ability to concentrate. Sitting in the same position all day while typing things into a computer can damage your neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, or eyes -- though it helps to have good, ergonomic equipment -- and dealing with pain day after day gets old -- and stressful -- very fast.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Music in the Office

“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,” writes Walt Whitman, whose mechanics and carpenters, shoemakers and housewives all sing as they work.Yet Whitman fails to mention the clerks, bookkeepers, or secretaries who occupied the offices of his day. Even then, apparently, music was taboo in the office.

I’m a person who loves to sing. I take voice lessons and sing in various choral groups. At home or in the car or even walking down the street I’m always singing -- everywhere except in the office. Sometimes I even warble out a few soprano bars from an oratorio in the parking structure on my way into work. Yet the minute I pass through the glass doors of our building, it’s as if someone clamped a hand over my mouth. I’m not exactly sure what would happen if I stood in the hallway and sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow” at the top of my lungs, but something tells me it wouldn’t be good. Singing in the office world is a thing one simply doesn’t do.

While singing or playing an instrument may be taboo, probably for good reason, listening has often – though not always – been considered more acceptable. In the 1980’s, my teenage son showed up at my office one day with a small “FM radio” in a wooden cabinet – one of the originals from the 1960s -- that we'd brought back when my mother moved into a retirement place. From then on, my job was a whole new ballgame. Instead of working in silence, I typed and filed to Brahms quartets and Stravinsky tone poems, listening to Detroit’s classical music station, DQRS. This was fine. I had a private office, the walls were reasonably thick, and no one ever complained. Sometimes people who came in to ask me for a research report would stop and try to guess what piece was being played, which would act as a conversation-starter.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Is Your Boss a Bully? How to Know and How to Survive

One of the blessings of my current office job is a non-bully boss with a heart as big as China. Alas, I have not always been so lucky: personally, I have known what it means to feel bullied at work, and from clients and friends I have also heard stories of outrageous abuses of managerial power.

I define “bullying” as any behavior that is meant to hurt, frighten, or humiliate someone who’s in a weaker position than one’s own. While schoolyard bullies typically use physical strength to bully weaker children, in the office, only the crassest bullies are likely to use muscle-power to terrorize their employees. Instead, their weapons are likely to consist of high voice volume, rapier-like wit, devious strategizing skills, or simply the authority to hire, fire, and promote.