Sunday, 6 September 2015

Pride and Productivity - Cecilia Busby

There is, apparently, a productivity problem in the UK. It's something that's been exercising the Chancellor, George Osborne, in recent months. Here he is, looking unhappy about it...

Of course, there are many reasons for this low productivity and a good few of them are issues that we would probably all agree need dealing with: housing is too expensive so people are forced to live too far away from their work, transport links are poor, wages are low, there is a lack of skills training...

But these are all things that could be equally said to be a cause of low levels of well-being in our society. They need to be dealt with because they cause misery rather than low productivity. Productivity itself is something that I feel ambivalent about, and that's because for me, it can often run counter to another important aspect of working life: pride.

Whatever you do, you can increase your productivity by just doing it faster or doing more of it in a day. In many parts of the economy, this seems to be exactly what has been asked of workers as a result of a relentless focus on profit and 'efficiency', two other things that increase when productivity increases. Councils contract out services to the private sector because it's more 'efficient'. The NHS is reorganised in order to make it more 'efficient'. Universities and schools are told to cut costs and deliver more 'education' while also being monitored for quality.

How do they achieve this miraculous increase in productivity? By processing more patients, washing, dressing and feeding more elderly people, emptying more dustbins and passing more young people through their degree courses in less time and with fewer workers.

Hurrah! More productivity!

But what's this? Workers feel less satisfied. They have to offer the elderly people they care for a brisk ten minutes instead of being able to relax with a cup of tea and a chat. They are tired and stressed by their work routines and expectations. They publish research that they haven't had enough time to get right, they can't support their students or patients as they'd like to, they are forced to cut corners or drive themselves into the ground trying to do their job properly.

More productivity allows companies to pay their workers higher wages. That should make them happier. But there's the thing.  There are growing numbers of self-employed people in the UK at the moment, and while in general they earn less than their employed counterparts and work longer hours, they are also happier and more satisfied with their work.

Their productivity - wages against hours - is clearly a lot lower. But I would hazard a guess that their happiness and satisfaction levels are higher because they are able to maintain the other important 'p' word - pride.

It's something the Arts and Crafts movement argued way back in the 19th century. Work that is done with pride, that's done with care and attention to detail, that makes us feel we have done something well, is extremely important to a sense of identity and well-being. We've all had to do rush jobs, get something done for a deadline, make compromises - but when that sort of pressure becomes the new normal, it's hard to maintain a sense of pride in your work or a sense of self-worth.

I was visited recently by a colleague from my old university department. She'd got to the stage I reached ten years ago - no longer able to maintain a sense of pride in educating young people or in carrying out research, because pressures from managers in the department and wider university meant too many students left to sink or swim without proper support (despite the huge financial debts they were being burdened with), and weak research being pushed out to satisfy quotas. She wanted to know what it was like on the other side of the fence - without the financial security of a permanent job contract. It made me think quite hard about whether I regretted jumping ship for the uncertain hand-to-mouth existence of the self-employed writer and copyeditor.

Readers, I regretted it not one jot. I may be less well paid. I may work harder. I may have extremely low levels of productivity. But I have pride. When I get slightly anxious about where the next cheque is coming from and if we can afford to replace the washing-machine, I remind myself of that. It's a tonic for the soul.

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for children aged 7-12 as C.J. Busby.

Her first series was the Spell series, an Arthurian knockabout fantasy aimed at 7-9. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)

1 comment:

Emma Barnes said...

But are you less productive? "Activity" is not the same as "productivity" - all those meetings, and forms to be filled in, and "busy work" which don't necessarily contribute anything substantive to anyone. If self-employed people earn less by hour, is that because of the type of work they choose to do, rather than because they are less "productive"?