Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 28th 2015 Contents B15
Thursday, May 28, 2015 www.guardian.co.tt Guardian
The workplace is where people go
to work. But much of the day is
increasingly padded out with less
productive activities, writes Peter
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."
The case was unnerving for one rea-
son mainly. People die all the time,
but usually we notice. Are things so
bad in the modern workplace that we
can no longer tell the difference
between the living and the dead?
Of course, the story turned out to
be a hoax. An urban myth.
As it happens, each country has its
own variation that still fools people
when they periodically appear. In the
US the dead person is a publisher. In
other countries, a management con-
We might even embellish the story
ourselves. Perhaps the dead accountant
not only went unnoticed for five days
but was rewarded with a promotion
for all the extra hours and loyalty, pos-
sibly making vice president. In all vari-
ants of the myth the worker is never
a woman which is interesting for its
Isn t it strange that so many of us
who encounter this apocryphal story
genuinely shrug and mumble "Yeah,
that s about right"?
Why does it resonate so well with
our experiences of employment today?
A number of reasons might be behind
First, it reminds us that the other-
wise crazy idea of working non-stop
for hours or even days on end has qui-
etly become the new normal. Behav-
iour that our grandparents would have
deemed insane is now rather pedes-
The average British worker spends
36 days a year answering work e-mails.
London workers in particular receive
close to 9,000 e-mails each year. As
a result, work spills over into private
time. One recent survey revealed that
80 per cent of employers consider it
perfectly acceptable to contact their
employees outside business hours.
And then there s the commute.
British workers waste 18 months of
their lives commuting, which is often
expensive and stressful.
All of this work comes at cost. Job-
related illness, for example, is a grow-
ing problem in the UK and elsewhere,
exacerbated by stress and more of us
being overwhelmed by the "to do"
Making matters worse, in times of
recession we are more willing to put
up with horrible workplace environ-
ments, which adds to the pent-up
frustration. A recent study found that
job burnout is more adverse to your
health than chain smoking.
Only in this context could we ever
see accounts of having "worked to
death" being reported in the corporate
sector, as was the case with the Bank
of America intern, Moritz Erhardt in
2013. He died of an epileptic seizure
after working 72 hours straight. And
let s not even mention the new phe-
nomenon of work-inspired suicides
that has followed in the long wake of
the 2008 financial crisis.
But the "Man Died at Desk and
Nobody Noticed" urban myth strikes
a chord for another and more depress-
ing reason. 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.
Take those 36 days spent on e-mail.
It would be simply impossible to fill
every minute online with only pro-
ductive work. The same goes for the
long hours put in at the office.
Apart from getting the actual task
done, which is typically completed in
short bursts, there is also a good deal
of messing about, chatting, paying the
bills, surfing the N et, daydreaming
and waiting for the day to finish. Most
importantly, much of our day is spent
busy being busy rather than doing
things that are socially useful.
This gives contemporary employ-
ment 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.
• Continues on Page B16
Why do people waste so much time at the office?
Apart from getting the actual work done, which is typically completed in short bursts, there is also a good
deal of messing about, chatting, paying the bills, surfing the Net, daydreaming and waiting for the day to
finish. PHOTO: NEWS.COM.AU
Job-related illness is a growing problem, exacerbated by stress and more of us
being overwhelmed by the "to do" list.
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