Tuesday, February 15, 2005

It's Been a Hard Day's Night

What makes people work hard? In Britain, "managers" and "fellow workers" have surged ahead from 1988 to 1997 as "sources of work pressure," now relegating "customers" to the fourth rank on the hierarchy of work pressures:
Green (2001: 64-8) brings together a range of these surveys and also highlights their data on why people work hard. The evidence over time shows an increase in the reporting of all forms of pressure (see Table 2). Green also shows that the number of sources of pressure cited (i.e. between zero and seven) correlates with the extent to which increased effort is reported -- which is one indicator that these self-reports are statistically valid.
Table 2: Reported Sources of Work Pressure, 1986 and 1997
per cent mentioning
Machinery etc
Fellow workers
Own discretion
Reports and appraisal
Source: Green (2001: 69), in turn based on the 1986 Social Change and Economic Life Initiative study and the 1997 Skills Survey.

Several points stand out from this table. First, pressures from markets and customers are widely, and correctly, seen as imposing increasing disciplines on employees. It appears from these results, however, that direct pressures remain limited, and it seems that they are mediated through the expectations of managers and fellow workers. Second, there has also been interest in the role of appraisal and monitoring systems, as means of measuring performance against pre-defined targets. The importance of such systems has indeed increased, but their direct impact remains relatively small. Third, in the light of discussion of performance-related pay, the doubling in the proportion of people citing pay as an influence on how hard they work is notable. Finally, the role of fellow workers is most striking, suggesting at first sight that peer discipline has become the predominant force, outside individuals themselves, in working hard. Yet there may be some uncertainty in the data here; a 1992 survey reported by Green put the figure at 36 per cent which implies an unlikely jump in the next five years. (Note also that ‘customers’ were cited by 50 per cent of respondents in 1992: it is not clear why this figure is out of line with those for 1986 and 1997). Detailed research evidence suggests that it is not the case that traditional managerial discipline has been replaced by team- or peer-based discipline in the sense of there being well-entrenched and formalized team systems embracing the establishment and enforcement of norms of behaviour and taking over the role of management (Geary, forthcoming).

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Geary, J. F. (Forthcoming) New Forms of Work Organization, in P. Edwards, ed., Industrial Relations, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Green, F. (2001) It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night: the Concentration and Intensification of Work in Late Twentieth Century Britain. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 39, 53-80. (Paul Edwards, "The Puzzle of Work: Autonomy and Commitment Plus Discipline and Insecurity," SKOPE Research Paper No.16, Summer 2001, pp. 15-16)
It is striking that workers' "own discretion" has remained the chief source of work pressure since the late 80s and that work pressure due to it has become more intense than ever in Britain, according to self-reports of British workers. "The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist," so much so that, in some cases, the worker's own subjectivity, as well as her fellow workers', becomes the most efficient wage-slave driver?

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