“work has become ritualised and detached from the practical things it was invented to accomplish”

A good piece by sociologist of work Peter Fleming asking “ Why do people waste so much time at the office?”

A few years ago a disturbing story appeared in the media that seemed to perfectly capture the contemporary experience of work and its ever increasing grip over our lives: “Man Dies at Office Desk – Nobody Notices for Five Days”…. Of course, the story turned out to be a hoax. An urban myth.

Fleming notes that while the story nicely captures our sense of anxiety about work, and the degree to which work has taken over our lives, there’s another interesting part of the story:

Yes, the office should have noticed the man was dead. Five days is a long time. But they also ought to have noticed that his work wasn’t actually getting done.

Unfortunately, this is not how the modern workplace functions today…. [Today] much of our day is spent busy being busy rather than doing things that are socially useful.

This gives contemporary employment something of a ceremonial feel about it. Not only are we working more now than ever (or searching for it if unemployed) but a good deal of it is unnecessary.

We are obliged to look like a worker as much as actually be one, whether we are working in Poundland for nothing (as part of the UK government’s back to work programme) or employed in high finance.

The case of Korea beautifully illustrates the paradox between long hours and productivity. Koreans in 2012 worked an average of 2,092 a year, compared to 1,765 for their notoriously workaholic salaryman Japanese counterparts, and 1,334 for the Dutch. Yet Korean economic output isn’t high; people are spending long hours at the office, but not getting that much more done. So why are they there?

According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s survey carried out this year, 43.65 percent of employees in Korea worked overtime each day for at least one hour. Fully 25.8 percent of the respondents said that they worked overtime because it was considered natural, while 20.9 percent and 9.4 percent mentioned low work efficiency during working hours and pressure from their senior workers, respectively. Just 25 percent of the respondents answered that overtime work was helpful for their job performance. 

As Brigid Schulte put it, the culture dictates that “No one leaves until the boss leaves. And the boss never leaves.”

But back to Fleming. As he concludes, “In other words, work has become ritualised and detached from the practical things it was invented to accomplish.” We’ve gone from performing in the sense of doing things, to “performing” in the sense of putting on a show.

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