*First published in Development in Action: 24/03/2016
When we spend more time at work than we do with friends and family, it is a tragedy that 70% of workers in the US hate their jobs. The Foxconn factories covered in suicide nets to stop workers leaping to their deaths epitomises the sickness at the heart of our ever fast-paced and inhuman world. Tal Tyagi proposes a strategy which reclaims ‘the pursuit of happiness’ not just as a goal of individuals but as a collective objective which encourages entrepreneurs to reach for the stars, simultaneously uplifting the spirits of the rest of society.
The pressure to squeeze productivity out of workers means sheer misery underpins many industries. Amazon exemplifies this. A model of a modern multinational, its CEO and founder Jeff Bezos is now the world’s richest person. The company is proud of its “purposeful Darwinism” doctrine. Annual culling of staff, pitting employees against one another and expressing utter contempt for human life define this. A woman who had breast cancer was told she was put on a “performance improvement plan” – Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired.” Similarly, in 2011 workers in a Pennsylvanian warehouse toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside, taking away labourers as they fell. Even the hard nuts crack. Former employee Bo Olson recalls “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
In the race for faster cars, taller towers and improved technology, must the human spirit be crushed? Not according to former Google CEO Larry Page: “It’s important that people feel… the company is like a family to them. When you treat people that way, you get better productivity.” Google argues it has got where it is today because of its approach. Chef-prepared meals, haircuts, health and dental care, massages, gym membership, swimming pool access and video games are just some of the benefits. As a result, Google is consistently ranked among the best places to work.
So why can’t all companies be like Google? Part of the reason Google is the exception rather than the rule is they hire the best of the best. Unlike more ‘low-skilled’ industries, tech companies have to attract and retain those in high demand. Similarly, other enterprises (particularly SMEs) cannot afford to provide gourmet food and bus rides to work. While it may be utopian to suggest all workplaces could be like Google, it is more realistic to propose a plan making businesses more like Google.
Management systems designed to maximise happiness should be incentivised through the tax system. Companies pursuing this are not only contributing to society by providing jobs and producing innovations, they are contributing to the very health of the nations where they are stationed.
A points-based system needs to be introduced whereby at the end of each year, every worker rates their overall happiness levels within the company out of 100. 100 would be Google and 1 would be sweatshop conditions. At the end of each year the higher the score, the lower the rate of taxation.
Companies would no longer be only competing on the basis of profits and products but on what they can actually deliver for their workers. Not only will there be the obvious financial incentive of attaining a high score but it is also a matter of reputation. Those with an embarrassingly low score are likely to be named and shamed by the media. Prospective employees and graduates can factor the score into their choice of where to work. Those companies who want to attract the best workers will realise that if they get a high score, it will be like attracting bees to honey.
Most importantly the dynamics of working life would be fundamentally changed. Promotion-hungry sycophantic employees would still exist but the need for approval would cut both ways. From the top to the bottom, company culture would become less authoritarian and bullying bosses would be phased out.
The technicalities need to be thoroughly formulated. It would be unfair and unreasonable for all businesses across all sectors to be examined according to one standard. For example, the demands of the poultry industry mean that most factories are hardly in a position to offer hybrid car subsidies. Therefore a score of 50 or 60 in some environments should translate into the same tax reductions as a score of 90 in a tech company. Similarly, a company employing thirty workers with a score of 3000 should have the same percentage of tax relief as one with a thousand workers with 100,000.
A very small business should be exempt from the system. The ratings require anonymity. If a business employing three workers got a low score it would be obvious which workers were so dissatisfied and it would severely harm employer-employee relations. It would be sensible to only apply the system to those who employ over twenty people.
It should also be added that the foundations of this working is based on companies actually paying full tax. In the UK alone tax avoidance costs the economy £69.9 billion a year. By tackling tax havens and closing down legal loopholes, taxation can become an instrument for elected governments to leverage companies to follow social objectives. This could take the form of tax breaks for those who can prove they are operating with concern for the environment and in this case, those who boost the wellbeing of their employees.
Ultimately, we need to take a long hard look at why misery is so prevalent in societies of plenty. Despite South Korea´s development into Asia´s richest nation, it has the highest suicide rate in the world. Living in a system where we are disposable and encouraged to climb on top of each other is the root of all kinds of grief. As J Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” In an economy where business is rewarded for smiles as well as sales, we would be less stressed and less depressed.
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