Treating workers as humans

We see so many working people being treated poorly these days that it’s come to be almost accepted that our fellow human beings, who happen to be employees, are simply expendable and worthy of little care. And I say that as an active trade unionist throughout my whole working life (1975 – 2017) where, in general, I saw working conditions getting worse rather than better.

The only thing that seems to matter these days is the production of whatever form of widgets you can imagine; greater and greater efficiency is the ever strived-for goal but at what cost? Mental health issues are at very significant levels and often the root cause can/will be working conditions, pressure at work, unreasonable production goals, and no time to consider that humans can only be pushed so far before they literally break down. Indeed, I fear that in times of raised unemployment some companies will push their employees past the brink as they don’t care and there’s always someone else who can fill the position of the person they’re in the process of breaking.

The gig economy is leading to huge and unacceptable exploitation of workers with governments and indeed trade unions across western economies struggling to bring this out of control sector to heel. But many mainstream companies, in trying to survive, are pushing their greatest assets to and past the brink. The NHS, poorly resourced as it is for mental health, has to try to pick up the pieces.

The latest mental (and of course physical) health crisis associated with employment is the pandemic we are presently living through. People working from home in inappropriate/inadequate conditions will take a toll on some workers, whilst yes some will find the situation liberating if they have the right conditions to be able to work at home. Generally, the poorer the worker is then the worse it will be trying to convert living space, which may well be scarce anyway, into a workspace. But what about when the pandemic is easing and workers are being pulled back to their traditional workspaces in offices often miles away and a public transport ride from their homes.

Isn’t bringing someone who has been working at home for say 15 or more months akin to bringing back an employee into a workplace who has been on long-term sick leave? Do employers realise that it’s probably not a good idea just to pull a lever and say ‘you’re back in the office next Monday’? Significant management skills are required to sensitively look after staff who are home-working and more again to identify those who will struggle to return to an office environment. The larger the company the more they should be able to ensure their managers, at all levels, are trained and able to help their staff members.

I’ve often felt that government should be leading the way as a massive employer of workers. It should be promoting the best practices and it should certainly not be contracting out work to companies unwilling to uphold similar high standards. Trouble is, at least in the civil service, that’s how things used to be and I started work at the tail end of such good practice. Sadly, I saw how government relinquished its moral responsibility with regard to best employment practices is it went through many years and counting of trying to get its work done at the lowest possible cost and bugger the consequences. And this process has run through governments of all colours I might add.

So, the reality is that government now, in effect, promotes very poor employment practices and even seems to be involved with dubious companies who may be working to undermine our tax system via National Insurance and tax dodging! With such leadership is there any wonder that looking after a company’s most important asset, the people who work for it, becomes a non-priority?

How long will it be before employers realise that treating employees poorly leads to poor outputs and treating them well has the opposite effect? It may take full employment before that lesson is learned by some companies (their staff will walk) but government can and should be leading the way rather than helping to create an explosion of workplace mental health issues!