Dominic Huez, an MD specialized in questions of labor-related medical conditions, has a book out, Souffrir au Travail: Comprendre Pour Agir, that connects illness and suffering to management practices. He recently had a chat hosted by Le Monde. Here is the digest version of what was discussed.
Rejecting "stress" as the proper concept to define his subjet, Huez prefers to use "suffering at work" as the correct one that can be caused by a lack of recognition by one’s peers or bosses. In a very Durkheimian fashion, he explains that the dynamics of recognition are essential to one’s identity-at-work and of one’s health.
For Huez, there are two main mechanisms at the root of psychopathologies at work (in both senses):
The intensification of work, the reduction of margins of maneuvers, the disappearance of breathing spaces for employees
The disastrous consequences of "new management" where the reality of work is not taken into account but where individuals are managed by indicators that measures individual performance for the extent of its deviation from prescribed results. Evaluation of performance becomes threatening device because the point is to judge people not the work really accomplished but on personality aspects and appearances. Under such conditions, there can be no system of recognition or collaboration that lead to psychosocial risks based on the risks of falling down. The illusion of autonomy may in reality be isolation without cooperation.
Indeed, what Huez describes here is something that social thinkers such as Ulrich Beck (see especially Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and Its Social and Political Consequences as well as The Brave New World of Work), Zygmunt Bauman (see especially Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Liquid Fear, and The Individualized Society) and Richard Sennett (see especially, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, The Culture of the New Capitalism, Respect in a World of Inequality , and The Craftsman) have described in more sociological terms when they analyzed the changes in the world of labor and their personal consequences.
This lack of recognition of crafts and commitment is especially visible in the fact that suicides at work are more likely to be from people who are the most committed to work, not those who are disengaged. But one examines the statistics of suicide at work, it is not surprising to find that they happen in labor units that experienced precarization of work in the global context. These suicides also happen more and more at the middle management levels, these that are subjected to paradoxical and double-bind-type demands, and are now also more likely to experience the precarization of their working conditions.
Huez discusses also the devaluation of the work by older workers. This is well in line, again, which Richard Sennett’s argument that the New Capitalism does not value experience or craft but potential skills that are non-specific. This again ties back into the lack of recognition.
Experience and craft is something that one build over time and applied to a specific domain of work, whereas potential skills are something that is more or less subjectively assessed as a potential of the person irrespective of the task at hand because what is precisely valued is the capacity to solve problems in a variety of environments (which is the essence of the job of consultant, for instance, no long-term ties, short-term contracts in a variety of settings that require not craft or experience but problem solving skills).
Is there a gender component to suffering at work? Well, of course there is. Women suffer more than men. Why?
One explanation, for Huez, is The Second Shift. Men can assume work burdens, safe in the knowledge that their wives are taking care of the kids. There is no such backup for women.
The second, and more convincing explanation according to Huez, is that women are more likely to be subjected to organizational constraints, more pushe around and more likely to be judged by standards concerning what is considered proper for women, how much they conform to culturally-expected "feminine qualities." Therefore, they are expected to pay more attention to relational aspects and to be more attentive to others. Generally, the level of expectations, both in terms of productivity and relationships, is higher and more pressing on women.
Ultimately, what it all boils down to is the meaning of work for one’s identity. And in the context of precarization, devaluation of identity, generalized insecurity, lack of recognition, unrequited demands for commitment and new management double-binds, this is a tighter rope to walk, with pathological consequences.