“What if the greatest threat to capitalism…is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity?”

In a long excerpt from The Happiness Industry, William Davies explores a real threat to capitalism: a lack of happiness.

What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is just met with a yawn? From a political point of view, this would be somewhat disappointing. Yet it is no less of an obstacle for the longer-term viability of capitalism. Without a certain level of commitment on the part of employees, businesses run into some very tangible problems, which soon show up in their profits.

This fear has gripped the imaginations of managers and policymakers in recent years, and not without reason. Various studies of employee engagement have highlighted the economic costs of allowing workers to become mentally withdrawn from their jobs. Gallup conducts frequent and wide-ranging studies in this area and has found that only 13 per cent of the global workforce is properly “engaged,” while around 20 percent of employees in North America and Europe are “actively disengaged.” They estimate that active disengagement costs the U.S. economy as much as $550 billion a year. Disengagement is believed to manifest itself in absenteeism, sickness and—sometimes more problematic—presenteeism, in which employees come into the office purely to be physically present. A Canadian study suggests over a quarter of workplace absence is due to general burnout, rather than sickness.

Perhaps people should turn their attention away from the NSA and toward their employers:

Rather than the rise of alternative corporate forms, we are now witnessing the discreet return of the scientific management style, only now with even greater scientific scrutiny of bodies, movement, and performance. The front line in worker performance evaluation has shifted into bodily-monitoring devices, heart-rate monitoring, and sharing of real-time health data, for analysis of stress risks. Strange to say, the notion of what represents a good worker has gone full circle since the 1870s, from the origins of ergonomic fatigue studies, through psychology, psychosomatic medicine and back to the body once more. Perhaps the managerial cult of optimization just needs something tangible to cling onto.

Studying happiness (and related concepts like life satisfaction and well-being) is its own academic subfield – see earlier posts here and here. And governments are very interested in well-being as well with measures like Gross National Happiness from Bhutan and regular reports about the happiest countries on earth.

All of this reminds me of sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s research on “emotion work” in relationships to keep them going and “emotion labor” in jobs that require a consistent cheerfulness or happiness as part of the routine. This would include a lot of service and retail jobs where employees regularly interact with customers and need to present an upbeat image. This is not easy to do and can be quite draining.

And what might Marx say about this – capitalism goes out not with a revolution but rather with indifference and apathy?

Negative emotions in the workplace

A recent Time magazine piece discusses the role, or lack of a role, of negative emotions in the workplace:

In the binary shorthand we use to compartmentalize modern life, we think of home as the realm of emotion and work as the place where rationality rules — a tidy distinction that crumbles in the face of experience. As management scholar Blake Ashforth has written, it is a “convenient fiction that organizations are cool arenas for dispassionate thought and action.” In fact, in the workplace we are bombarded by emotions — our own and everyone else’s. Neuroscientists have demonstrated over and over in empirical ways just how integral emotion is in all aspects of our lives, including our work. But since companies have generally avoided the subject, there are no clear protocols about emotional expression in the office.

The only instance in which we acknowledge emotion is when doing so is seen as obviously beneficial, both personally and professionally…

But we’re still largely clueless about how to display and react to more commonplace emotions such as anger, fear and anxiety, so we handicap ourselves, trying to check our human side at the office door.

As the last paragraph of the article suggests, not being able to express these emotions leaves employees as less than human. It is one thing to be able to act professional or courteous in the workplace but another to suggest that people have to bottle emotions that we all have from time to time. In high stress environments where the personal identity of employees is often closely tied to job performance, negative emotions are bound to come up.

This reminds me of Arlie Hochschild’s concept of “emotion work.” While there are certain professions that require a public performance of cheerfulness (such as a flight attendant or waitress), this article suggests that most employees have to do some form of this. Just as Hochschild suggests, this is also a gendered issue: women are judged differently when expressing emotion.

So how could companies allow employees to express these emotions in positive ways?