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Jul. 13 2010 - 8:14 am | 731 views | 1 recommendation | 15 comments

The Economist: An unhappy worker is a productive worker

Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times. Image via Wikipedia.

Why does The Economist have not only anonymous scribes, but anonymous bloggers? Perhaps so they can be refreshingly honest.

There’s no taint of political correctness, no whiff of sympathy, in the latest offering in the paper magazine by their “Schumpeter blogger” (named for Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter), who turns out upon investigation to be none other than Mr. Adrian Wooldridge, an Oxonian philosopher who serves as the magazine’s editor on management.

Mr. Woolridge frets about a growing movement in which companies concern themselves with their employees’ mental health:

“The biggest problem with the movement lies in the assumption that promoting psychological wellness is as axiomatically good as encouraging the physical sort,” he writes.

Just when you thought it was safe to assume that wellness was all well and good.

Mr. Woolridge has no quibble with the notion that physical wellness is good for employees–it keeps their backsides out of  hospital beds, no doubt, and planted in their office chairs. But when it comes to mental health, he contends, crazy just might be better for business:

Few would doubt that good physical health makes for good productivity; but it is not self-evident that a positive mental attitude is good for a worker or his output: history shows that misfits have contributed far more to creativity than perky optimists. Besides, curmudgeonliness is arguably a rational way to cope with an imperfect world, rather than a sign of mental maladjustment (or so your occasionally curmudgeonly columnist would like to believe). Companies that chase the will-o’-the-wisp of “positive attitudes” may end up damaging themselves as well as sticking their noses where they have no business.

via The Economist.

Will-o–the-wisp indeed. Had Mr. Woolridge been led to concern about his reputation by something so bold as a byline, he might not have penned this insight into office culture. It may even explain why the one perk we can count on from an American office is bad coffee.

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  1. collapse expand

    Here’s the scary thing- what if he’s right? What if modern capitalism depends on a scared, insecure, neurotic workforce that doesn’t have anything like a life outside of work? What if our absolute dysfunctional dependence on our job for everything from healthcare to identity is what makes for those 70 hour work weeks and very little time off???

  2. collapse expand

    Old news: slightly depressed employees are the most efficient. I saw this in the 90s. Or as my Dad, an EE for naval control systems once remarked in the 70s, “Transformers and people both reach maximum efficiency at the point of burning out.”

  3. collapse expand

    I agree with Laurie — we’ve entered a phase in which jobs overly define and dominate people’s lives to the point that it is a dysfunction. I hear people talk about work these days the way people used to talk about their religious beliefs.

  4. collapse expand

    Positive attitude is preached everywhere in the corporate world. “No one wants to work with negativity”. Bullshit. It should be “no one wants to work with honesty” because honesty would cause the people to stop working and the system to fall apart.

    Keep smiling, hoping for a promotion that won’t be coming, be happy you have a job. Let the big money boys keep fleecing you, keep busy, and everything will be ok. Riiiiight….

  5. collapse expand

    We also like to talk about a duty cycle. A person can’t operate at peak efficiency all the time. There has to be down time. There has to be a cycle to the workload, or people will go crazy.

    We have known for a long time that depressed people tend to be at their most creative and assess the situation most accurately. However, people can not stay in that state for long without hurting themselves.

    Having an employer that recognizes these cycles of performance and helps to celebrate good performance is not a bad thing. The bad ones are the ones like Laurie Essig suggests who will burn through employees. That’s the sort of place where eventually someone can’t take it any more and snaps. Those places don’t usually stay in business for long.

  6. collapse expand

    I vowed to go fishing, golfing, or bike riding every weekend thias summer. Now I like Mondays. Go figure!
    People that have it easy at work don’t produce diddly. As JFK stated so eloquently: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. This is America where people will always be challenged, not some cafe’ encrusted euro-existential society of lazy losers. Now get off the internet and get you ass in gear and do some real innovative work, dammit.

  7. collapse expand

    Jeff, I think the Economist meant the comments along the lines of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” The Economist, like Ehrenreich, is actually in favor of the renegades, not the typical sheep-like, yes-man worker.

    The problem is that American business encourages the positive-thinking, obedient worker and runs off the talented, paradigm-subverting worker who actually has real and valid ideas.

    Denial of reality in favor of positive thinking serves no one, in business OR in private life.

    • collapse expand

      Marsgirika, you’re so right. Thank you for your comment… and for validating my employment history!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Depressed people can’t sell anything. They need those happy ignorant marketing people to push an idea. Often those marketeers don’t see the value of an idea for what it is.

      I have had many creative notions over the years that got shelved and “rediscovered” later as a really cool thing. Ever since the Greek Mathematicians, creative ideas have been suppressed because the marketing people simply don’t understand the value.

      To sell an idea, one needs an almost bipolar personality to sell the ideas we get when we are depressed.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    I think all the above comments lend credence to Scott’s post, both pro and con.

    First, I think it would be a could idea to have a cattle-exercise room, or an exercise-cattle room. Keep the backs of those labor-monkeys strong and their minds tired. A strong-back and a tired-mind will up-productivity and reduce management-challenges, and challenges to management.

    Now the, “history shows that misfits have contributed far more to creativity than perky optimists” which Scott quotes from The Economist’s Editorial Management, and anonymous blogger -and to which Scott bases his arument on, left me, too, a bit disquited.

    But I can say it, and say it with no political fall out: The author of the Economists article/anonymous blogger is a wack-a-nut.

    First, history has a long, long, long trail. Really long trail. To suggest that history was tucked on a bar-stoole sitting next to him on a Scotch soaked night won’t speak to the history I expect to hear.

    Second, History is all too convenient. When history is too proudly referred, anyone can pick and choose what moment in history as the basis of their argument.

    Third, the “misfit” reference is disquieting. Is he referring to ’social misfits?’ ‘Position misfits?’

    I would agree that sometimes hiring a burger-maker could step into the position of a window dresser based on the fact that -there’s no history, and something new could immerse.

    But, because he used “history” in such an uncategorical term that he soley picks and chooses, he probably already has his uncategorical term of ‘misfits’

    So, in Scott’s description of this article in the Economist -thanks for pointing it out to us, I think we can surmize that the author/anonymous blogger has chosen his history, and probably already has defined his ideas of “mistfits”

    My definition of a “misfit” is that of an intelligent individual who doesn’t use “history” as a collection of antique experiences, but someone who choses what segment of history the need to support their theory, or sell their article.

    So kudos to the “Schumpeter blogger” he proved his case!

  9. collapse expand

    Mine, too.

    It’s particularly American, this idea of being nice. Other cultures don’t say — or mean — “Have a nice day.”

  10. collapse expand

    I don’t think a positive attitude is the same thing as contentment. Indeed, I think those two things can be completely at odds.

  11. collapse expand

    A judge friend told me once about a conversation he had had with an old Catholic priest. The priest said that he had ministered to several thousand dying people, and not once did anybody ever tell him, “I wish I had worked harder.”

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    Environmental reporting recruited me 25 years ago—on my first day as a reporter for my college newspaper, when I discovered my college was discarding radioactive waste in the regular city trash. Since then I've written hard news for dailies, including the Arizona Republic, and slanty news for alternative weeklies, including Newcity. I've written a column for New Times, stories on the Web for Forecast Earth, essays for PEN International and other magazines. I lived in an idyllic California village nestled among volcanoes and vineyards until my batteries were full of sunshine, and then I returned to my origins on the South Side of Chicago, where hope persists with no illusions about the struggle ahead. I cross the asphalt jungle by bicycle and el, mostly to get to the University of Chicago, where I teach journalism. But what matters more than any of this is a lifelong love for the natural world. We are all born with it, I believe, but some turn away.

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