“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 Various studies of employee engagement have highlighted the economic costs of allowing workers to become mentally withdrawn from their jobs.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?

Driverless cars will lead to increased worker productivity

Dan Neil writes about the inevitability of driverless cars and brings up an interesting benefit: Americans will suddenly have more time on their hands.

The one brilliant part of the U.S. economic profile is productivity. It turns out, Americans are a little nutty when it comes to work.

If autonomy were fully implemented today, there would be roughly 100 million Americans sitting in their cars and trucks tomorrow, by themselves, with time on their hands. It would be, from an economist’s point of view, the Pennsylvania oil fields of man-hours, a beautiful gusher, a bonanza of reverie washing upon our shores.

In the history of human civilization, has there ever been a society to offer so much uninterrupted head space to so many? Europe’s medieval monastic tradition created scholars, true, but only a relative handful…

It’s possible that all these suddenly idle driver/passengers will waste their gift, texting, watching TV or worse. But many of them, like me, would beaver into work, happy to get a jump on the day.

And here’s the best part. I always get my best ideas in the car—in solitude, watching the unwinding of the road, hearing the thrum of the tires. You know that space, right?

Hurray – more time to work! Neil might be excited about this but I first think of all the opportunities for mixing the boundaries of home and work even further. Thinking more broadly, is productivity something we want to continue to chase as a society? Do Americans really need to be working more?

On the other hand, this could be a big boon for several sectors. Think about media companies: Americans would then have on average something like 40-60 minutes more per day to consume television shows, websites, podcasts, music, etc. Or perhaps it could give rise to all sorts of services and car add-ons; I’m thinking of the Honda Odyssey commercials from a while back showing moms going to the minivan to relax and get a facial.


Sociologist argues shorter work weeks would reduce unemployment

Alongside a report last week suggesting the 40 hour work week was simply a cultural norm we could change, a sociologist argues that shorter work weeks would reduce unemployment levels:

[Juliet Schor, professor of Sociology at Boston College] claimed that working hour reductions have “a long history” of successfully leading to lower rates of unemployment.

“What progressive reductions in working hours financed by productivity do is allow a society to take some or all, depending on its choices, of its economic dividend of the productivity growth that it generates, and use it to give people more leisure time rather than more income,” Prof Schor added…

She cited the example of the Netherlands, where such a policy was implemented in 1980.

The Dutch began a 15-year project to alter the look of the working week, long enough to have a limited, if any, impact on real wages.

I wonder if Americans would like this trade off: fewer hours on the job and less pay for a lower unemployment rate. Would any politician have the guts or political capital to even make this a talking point? Everyone does want to reduce unemployment, don’t they…

At the same time, this could also lead to larger discussions in the United States about the emphasis on productivity and income growth over other desirable outcomes. Could you imagine lots of companies talking about wanting their employees to flourish rather than simply be more productive? Even discussions of living wages seem to focus on properly paying workers so they can survive rather than allowing them to pursue relationships and leisure time.

Measuring faculty productivity in sociology

A sociologist and associate dean at the University of Texas-Austin has recently put together a report on faculty productivity at his school that was undertaken to counter criticism that some faculty at the school didn’t do enough research to justify the money paid by taxpayers to support the school. The report cautions against using the same measures of productivity across disciplines:

While Musick said there was value in using the available numbers on research support, he stressed the importance of recognizing that this is valid only for some disciplines. (And one of his recommendations going forward is that the university develop better measures for research productivity of faculty members who work in disciplines without significant sources of outside funding.)

His own field of sociology is a perfect illustration of the limits of using outside funding as a measure of faculty research productivity, Musick said. Sociologists have some government support for which they can apply, but not nearly as much as do those in the physical or biological sciences, he noted. Even within fields, one’s success at obtaining funds may be based on area of expertise, not productivity. Musick said that as a medical sociologist, he has been able to win National Institutes of Health grants that some of his colleagues in sociology — people with good research agendas — could not seek.

He also said it was important to reject the idea that universities should be based only upon those fields that can attract the most outside support — even if you have a goal of producing more scientists. Musick cited as examples STEM-oriented universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology — both of which invest significant funds in humanities and social science programs. “They recognize that universities are ecosystems,” he said. “They recognize that to produce the best scientists, they need the humanities and social sciences and the fine arts.”

It would also be helpful to keep in mind that there is even disagreement within sociology about faculty productivity. (I assume these discussions might also take place within other disciplines.) I’ve seen some heated discussion between faculty of different subfields of sociology where productivity is measured in very different ways. A book might be considered a massive achievement in one subfield while multiple journal articles are the norm in another. Plus, you could get into the quality of such publications which can also be difficult to assess. Impact factor seems to be the favored way to do this today but that has some issues and applies only to journal articles. Additionally, we could ask what the benchmark for overall productivity is: should UT-Austin match other R1 public schools and/or places like Harvard and Princeton?

Does the availability of outside funding help explain why medical sociology is a growing subfield?

Still on the road after all these years

In light of the recent heat wave, Derek Thompson over at The Atlantic asks why more people don’t telecommute:

The answer might have more to do with psychology than economics. Even if we’re technically more productive at home, we feel more conspicuously productive at work. You might think a recession would lead to more telecommuting since it reduces overhead and increases work hours. Instead, telework among the formally employed has slowed in the last three years.

Thinking back through my personal experience, this strikes me as correct. In the past, I’ve held several jobs that I could telecommute into, but I always felt like my time was suspect since it couldn’t be obviously verified by showing up to the office. For all of the inconveniences of commuting, at least I clearly received “credit” for my office appearances.

The benefits of Best Buy’s flex schedules for employees

Two sociologists have published a study in the American Sociological Review that shows that employees at Best Buy’s headquarters benefit from flex schedules:

Sociology professors Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen said a flexible work schedule that focuses on results and not just activity cut turnover at Best Buy’s Richfield headquarters by 45 percent while improving productivity.

The flex schedules, they said, cut down on stress and work interruptions due to personal issues because employees were able to find a better balance between their work and home lives…

The U of M study followed 600 workers for eight months after the start of the program, 300 who worked under the flex plan and 300 who continued working the traditional 9-5 day…

The study showed that 6 percent of the employees working under the flex plan left Best Buy during the study period, while 11 percent of the control group left during that time. Also, the results were about the same regardless of gender, age, tenure, job satisfaction, and stage of life.

Turnover can be a problem for companies who then have to hire new employees and train them so cutting turnover even five percent is no small matter.

Based on the success of the program, Best Buy has changed some of their practices:

The research showed that the flex program led to Best Buy getting rid of “low-value work,” such as unnecessary meetings. The researchers said staff and supervisors started re-considering their work patterns, figuring out what activities were the most productive.

It would be interesting to see exactly how the employees in the flex program talk about these changes. And I would be interested in hearing more about this trade-off in a company stressing results rather than activity – are there downsides to this?

Happy employees = better workers

Forbes has developed a list of the 10 companies in the United States that have the happiest employees. This happiness is not just a good thing for the personal well-being of the employees – it eventually helps improve the company’s quality and bottom line:

Studies show that positive employees outperform negative employees in terms of productivity, sales, energy levels, turnover rates and healthcare costs. According to Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author of “The Happiness Advantage,” optimistic sales people outperform their pessimistic counterparts by up to 37%. In fact, the benefits can be seen across industries and job functions. Doctors with a positive mindset are 50% more accurate when making diagnoses than those that are negative.

I’ve seen articles/studies like this before. If this is a consistent finding, why don’t more companies make this a priority? It might take some extra money and convincing up front, but if the payoff is harder-working yet more relaxed employees, who wouldn’t want that?