Denise Kingsmill: Death of the worker bee

Like honey bees, recession-hit execs are collapsing through stress. Should we rethink our attitude?

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The honey bees are dying. Across the world, these social little creatures whose sophisticated colonies play a vital role in global agriculture, are giving up the ghost and abandoning their hives. Known as colony collapse disorder, this phenomenon is a threat to us all, as almost a third of everything we eat depends on pollination by honey bees.

In their book A World Without Bees, amateur apiarists Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum consider some of the reasons why this may be happening. Pesticides, global warming and disease are all implicated, but the overwhelming cause seems to be the industrialisation of pollination. In the US, for example, 2.4 million colonies of bees are transported thousands of miles by road each season from California's almond farms to the citrus plantations of Florida, via the apple and pear orchards of the northern states, to undertake pollination on a truly vast scale. Instead of being allowed to do what comes naturally, the bees are being worked to death.

Can we learn from this - not just in relation to sustainable agriculture but also in connection with our own working lives, the stresses of which have been greatly exacerbated for many by the current recession?

The global economic crisis has led to a massive contraction of business and huge reductions in the workforce as companies struggle to survive. Unemployment is growing, but with it comes an enormous increase in the pressures on those remaining in work as they take up the slack. The overwhelming necessity to cut costs is taking its toll in some workplaces, as fewer people have to work increasingly longer hours.

In the City, those still in jobs report higher demands placed on them in what was already a long-hours culture - and this in the context of the ever-present threat of redundancy. The financial services sector, the epicentre of the downturn, has suffered a major exodus of people. The black-binbag syndrome, as it is known in the City - where people are hustled out of the door by security, their possessions bundled into whatever comes to hand before they can sabotage the computers or raid the central database - has certainly increased the fear factor among those left behind. But tired, anxious workers are unlikely to be the most efficient or productive.

The UK has the longest working week in Europe, and yet by most productivity measures we lag behind. These facts are surely related. The loss of cognitive function is acute in those who consistently work more than 60 hours a week, and studies have shown a marked increase in the risk of injury, illness, depression and even death in those who regularly put in long days or work excessive overtime.

In Japan, death from overwork is so common they even have a name for it: karoshi. It is estimated that up to 10,000 deaths a year are associated with the excessive hours and irregular work schedules often linked to the Japanese production method known in the West as 'lean' and characterised by an intensified workpace and a reduction in the number of meaningful decisions and skill levels expected of the worker.

The parallels with the bees are striking. Being treated like machines and with work patterns imposed on them that bear no connection to their normal domestic and community lives, both bees and humans are driven to the point of collapse.

Work is good for us and can be a source of pleasure and fulfilment, as well as a social obligation and an economic necessity. Too much of it, however, can damage our health and happiness. In this time of economic stress, should we be rethinking our attitude to work and in particular how much time we spend doing it? Is it too simplistic to suggest it be shared around a bit more, especially in the recession?

Shorter and more flexible working hours, job-sharing, or even temporary lay-offs are sensible ways of reducing the wages bill in the short term without permanently losing good people, whom it may be expensive to recruit when the economic cycle turns. At the same time, we worker bees could find a healthier balance in our lives by working less - provided, of course, we can afford it.

Rather than have to embark on expensive redundancy programmes, some enlightened employers are encouraging people to take sabbaticals. A more sophisticated approach to human capital management that keeps people on the payroll but on reduced pay while they undertake further education or training could pay dividends in the form of a more skilled and loyal workforce when the upturn comes.

These should be seen as innovative management responses to difficult times and much preferable to the knee-jerk slashing of jobs. The challenge for management is to find acceptable ways of reducing the wages bill in tough times while preparing for economic recovery.

These, however, may be only short-term measures. With an unemployment rate of 9.4% in the US and heading towards three million in the UK, it's difficult to feel optimistic. We may be entering a new phase of the recession, which is proving to be deeper and more prolonged than others, when employers have done all they can to trim the fat and are now contemplating cutting into the bone. In some sectors, jobs have already gone for good and, even in a recovery, will not be coming back. We may have to get used to working harder for a while.

But people are more resilient than bees, and, as some are saying, better to be overworked than the alternative - at least in the short term.

- Baroness Kingsmill CBE has been a non-executive director of plc, private, charitable, arts and government boards. She is a non-executive director of British Airways.

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