Monday, December 15, 2008

Technology, Change, Stress

Why are humans so highly stressed in modern occupations? After all, technology claims to make things easier. But the stress seems to be increasing everyday. Especially in the knowledge industries, the workplace is safer today than ever before, working conditions are usually comfortable, the jobs not physically demanding, ... So, why so much stress?

People who joined work in the Seventies or early Eighties blame the increasing ambitiousness of youngsters, their hedonistic lifestyles, their "me" attitude, and so on. They consider stress to be just another complaint of a whining generation. According to them, they also worked hard in their age, sometimes getting up before daybreak, they had 6-day work weeks, were paid a pittance as compared to the "spoiled brats" of today, and still today's youngsters have the temerity to complain about life? They wonder, not without a tinge of loathing.

I will point out various aspects of work in the modern world which are very different from the past, and which contribute to stress and burn-out. These aspects have nothing to do with ambition, hedonism, or attitude, but are natural consequences of technology.

I will not touch upon the global outsourcing phenomenon which puts stress on the body clock, due to the difference in time zones.

Firstly, due to industrialization, machines have taken over physical work in almost all spheres. More and more people are today therefore engaged in what can be called the "knowledge industries". In these industries, thinking about a problem and following a process are the main tasks of a worker. And moreover, the processes to be followed do not involve hard labor. They usually entail understanding a problem, gathering the data and the requirements, responding verbally, electronically, and by asking someone else to do a task. Examples are the software industry, the call centers, the publishing industry, banking, travel agencies, health care, etc.

This kind of work requires the exercise of one's brain to the almost total exclusion of other body parts. One might as well be plugged into wires on a bed, as in the film Matrix, and still be able to do one's job well. This obviously leads to a decline in health, and the increasing instances of obesity, diabetes, lowered immunity, backaches, etc. need no exaggeration. Some organizations claim they are more health-conscious (with ergonomic chairs, one or two exercise rooms, etc.), but these measures fail to address the problem, since they are compensatory in nature.

The effects (endorphin release, increased basal metabolism rate) that follow from a regular exercise (I don't mean a planned gym session, I mean exercise as in: exercising of a faculty) of one's body as a whole is an important contributor to human well-being. Working in a knowledge industry is therefore physically insalubrious, and has a depleting effect on one's health. Due to a lowered immunity, the body's (and mind's) stress tolerance goes down. Not only is modern man more stressed (as I illustrate below), modern occupations lower his stress thresholds.

Secondly, due to the work being primarily mental, workplaces have become dense. Not much equipment is required except a general purpose computer on one's desk, which can also work as a telephone. This density has led to the cubicle phenomenon where one is confined in a small space for most of one's day. This also means that thousands of people can work in a single building.

Since workplaces have become dense, the workers are more numerous, and their houses cannot all be near to the workplace. This has exacerbated the phenomenon which started with industrialization, namely, the increasing distance between one's home and one's place of work. As a factory worker, one could still hope for a stable place of residence for many years. The lifetime of a factory was much more than that of a knowledge-industry office or even a knowledge-industry corporation. As the workforce expands in a modern office, the office is quickly shifted to outside the city (where land is cheaper). Corporations quickly get acquired, go bust, etc. And yes, voluntary attrition (which I don't cover in this article), which follows from stress and ambition, plays its part as well.

This leads to two stresses: Commuting (and the associated costs and stresses of maintaining one's vehicle, of paying traffic fines, of experiencing road-rage and danger on the road), and Deciding where to purchase a home for the long term. Because of increased density at the workplace, urban areas have become crowded, and buying a home at a reasonable distance from an industrial center is out of the reach of most people, unless they agree to wage-slavery for the next twenty odd years.

Thirdly, technology feeds its own progress. Because of the increasing pace of technological change, there is this stress to continually upgrade one's skills. Education (in the sense of learning a new skill) becomes a lifelong activity, if one is to survive in one's career stream. This is stressful. After a certain age, the ability of humans to learn a new skill becomes hard due to neurological reasons (the learning capacity of the brain is most active during childhood, and decreases significantly as one ages).

If, instead of upgrading one's skills, one becomes a manager of knowledge-workers, the daily, unpredictable stresses of managing stressed subordinates are not any less. Any modern manager will vouch for this.

The fourth aspect, and one which will become increasingly important, is the stress of being creative all the time. The Industrial-era machines took over repetitive physical labor, the Information-era machines (computers) are taking over repetitive mental labor. The knowledge-industry is not just using computers as communication tools, but also as replacements for humans in tasks which can be specified formally, or algorithmically. Consider ATMs, Voice response systems, shopping comparison sites, theorem-proving systems, automatic movie-recommendation systems, diagnostic systems, teaching automation, etc.

The assembly-line work (e.g. in the automobile industry) that used to be decried as dehumanizing was monotonous to a very high degree. The knowledge-industry work is evolving towards a stage where the only work available to a human will be exclusively non-monotonous. One will have to be a "self-starter", "motivated", "willing to work in ambiguity", "work without supervision", etc. All the phrases that one finds in job postings as of today. Working without structure is not easy, far from it in fact. It is challenging, and fulfilling, sure, but not all human beings want their workplace to "challenge" them continuously. I think a lot of us also seek some level of predictability, certainty and confidence (that tomorrow will not be very different from today) at our workplace.

In highly automated times, what is left for a human being to do? Either service and maintain the computers (which means, instruct them and debug them, both of which are highly creative tasks), which is the IT industry. Or figure out and do something for which no clear algorithm exists (i.e. do something creative, again). This second form of creative work can be seen in scientific R&D, the teaching professions, the advertising industry, sales, marketing, art production (films, music, etc.).

Not all humans can be so highly creative. What is their future? Obsolescence? Early aging due to stress? Extinction?

(Some points in this article are the outcome of thoughts shared with Harkishan Singh Mehta)

1 comment:

Pramod said...

I fully agree with your assesment, not only is the modern day office a stressed out place but other modern day institutions greatly contribute to the amount of stress in one's life.Ivan Illich questioned the effectiveness of modern day institutions.His works can be found below