Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Give us this day, our daily bread

Once, work was necessary or starvation was the result. People lived in small family groups in natural surroundings where all that they required to survive had to be obtained from their environment. To subsist, they went out and gathered food from the wild and men (most likely) huddled behind trees with sharp sticks for days awaiting antelope or deer. If you didn’t make the effort, there was no food. The incentive to get up and not lie around in a pile of leaves all day, was the imperative to eat and the desire to stay alive and not to starve.

Then came civilization and organized labour. Still peasants had to work in order to eat and feed their families. But overlords and aristocrats demanded a share of the results of their toil. Obligation, whips and force backed up their claims to whatever portion they deemed their right. These were not good times for humanity and such systems still exist.

For a while, there was an age, in which I am proud to have worked, where toil involved more intellectual and cerebral tasks. In this, force would have been counterproductive. One cannot do a job that involves thinking constructively or creatively under duress; Customers cannot be infected with enthusiasm for products and services by those who are resentful and angry. Some management styles were enlightened enough to realise this and to therefore make the working environment and attitude towards those performing these jobs as pleasant and benevolent as could realistically be provided. It worked well. Happy people do better work and are more productive than unhappy people. The effectiveness of this approach was apparent in the extra effort that people put in and the results that therefore ensued.

Then came the focus on shareholder value and “bottom line”. Whereas some have to work where pain, discomfort and fear break their spirit and hard, physical work breaks their bodies, now there are different whips. Shoulders may wear out due to heavy lifting for decades and arthritis riddle overburdened knees. But now, other pressures degrade our physical wellbeing.

Bullying, oppressive regimes squeeze out “cost”. Cost usually means colleagues who provided necessary functions that were essential. Resourceful people initially find solutions for the gaps, at some cost to their own performance and well-being. And all continues to more-or-less function.

Seeing that it “all still works”, more cost is removed and it starts to creak. The indifference and disconnectedness of the theorists at the top adds to the feelings of oppression and exploitation and instead of joints and muscles being degraded by toil, a different cost is exacted.

Cortisol and adrenalin, once intended as a quick boost to enable leopards to be escaped from or rivals to be vanquished, is now ever present in systems designed to endure them for a few minutes. Blood pressures rise and cellular and systemic damage begins to occur. Arterial walls become less elastic, heart muscles degrade and brain tissues are subtly changed by the presence of hormones and neurotransmitters which keep the body in a permanent state of danger-arousal, the fear now not being starvation, but still, removal of the means of livelihood: No less profound in its way.

People are no longer worn down by weight and repetition of physical efforts, but more subtle though equally serious organic damage begins to occur.

On arriving home, the residue of the day haunts and echoes in the inside of heads. Sleep or even relaxation is inconceivable in a bodily system primed for conflict or exertion but for which no outlet is available. Wine becomes the only viable remedy. So, another night, another bottle, we head up the stairs to mildly alcoholic oblivion until the alarm clock demands we face another day of inconsequential and abstract but still arduous tasks.