The smart HR professional's blueprint for workforce strategy

Stress in modern times

By: Staff Journalist, Singapore
Published: Aug 01, 2008

While employees have moved away from the production line, are there lessons we can learn from the ol’ factory worker?

The ever-quickening march of telco and data communications development and the acceptance that responses must be virtually immediate has pushed productivity levels for the average executive off the charts.

At the same time, the “need for speed” has increased stress levels in the general workforce to a whole new level. Enquiries are fired off all over the globe with the demand that the response be immediate, as executives sit numbly glued to their screens, tip-tapping out replies one after another after another.

The email, mobile phone may have replaced the socket wrench and production line of Chaplin’s “Modern Times” for the modern executive, but brings with them similar baggage of alienation, unhappiness and stress. People know they are under pressure but there has been no real outcry yet. Around the globe, economic necessity drives them to accept their modern lot of being constantly on call and the human competitive spirit spurs them on to “send” and “respond” to communication at least as much as their neighbour in the nearest cubicle.

Where will it end?

The answer to enabling humans to cope with this intense environment and avoiding the implosions that could ensue as the pace quickens is to humanise the process. This is where the HR professional comes in. It is time for HR to put its hand up and call for a time out. The productivity gains brought about by huge advances in technology in recent years have been fantastic, but we now need to address the input of these gains on the people using technology and delivering the gains.

Just as sociologists looked at the impact on people taken often from a fairly rural environment and put to work for 10-12 hours a day undertaking repetitive tasks on early production lines, we need to see what the effect of massively increasing the speed of communication has had on today’s executive.

History tells us that the production line of Henry Ford was a fantastic development that spurred productivity per person by a massive amount. It also tells us those gains in productivity diminished the more alienated workers became, as tasks were broken down and made more and more repetitive. What should have delivered more productivity delivered less, eventually causing productivity levels to decline and businesses to suffer.

Where is it going?

While the effect of today’s business environment on executives is far more subtle than that experienced by a factory employee in 1936, there are some constants. Having to do one thing over and over again for set periods of time prohibits human interaction, likewise for concentration on a computer screen and emails and internet. A few years ago, managers walked in the office talking to the employees, following up on tasks and checking that people were not goofing off.

Nowadays, managers are more likely to send an email to check on tasks and rarely walk the office as they become ensnared to their computers, hurriedly answering even internal memos online rather than conducting a face-to-face interaction. This lack of the “personal touch” limits the building of such important attributes as corporate loyalty, encourages people to think no one cares for them and allows them to goof off. In short, like the production worker of old, people become alienated.

The same applies to the notion of being constantly on call. Like the 6am to 6pm shift left little time for people to pursue interests other than work, mobile phones now mean people never leave work and in a few years’ time when everyone’s mobile is a video conferencing unit and computer in one, the situation will be even further exacerbated.

So while much changes, some things remain the same. Business has come a long way in the past ten years and the gains have been great. To keep those gains occurring, companies must look to their human resources, implementing policies that limit alienation due to technological advancement and impact. They must encourage social interaction and enable employees to get some of their time back by implementing innovative annual vacations and other leave arrangements. They must take a holistic look at where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow – with their people as the centrepiece.

Alf Chown

Executive general manager

Lloyd Morgan Asia



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