Posts Tagged 'Lifts loos and lobbies'

Adding insult to injury

charlie_chaplin02

As I’ve already mentioned, Panorama this week looked at the subject of health and safety which  is no laughing matter is it? Well actually, yes, sometimes it is.

One of my pet ideas is a sort of Darwin Awards for health and safety. (For those who don’t know, The Darwin Awards is an annual celebration of ‘those people who improve the species by accidentally removing themselves from it’, such as the Croatian man who in 2002 was killed while trying to open a hand grenade with a chainsaw to retrieve the explosive inside to make fireworks. Or there’s the one on the Darwin Awards website entitled ‘Scrotum Self Repair’ but you’d better look that one up yourself if you really want to.)

This is all a bit unpleasant, tasteless and childish but laughing at other people’s misery is what we do. It was Steve Allen who observed that comedy equals tragedy multiplied by distance and it was Mel Brooks’ assertion that ‘tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die’.

You only have to look at our own favourite comedies to see the wisdom of this. Fawlty Towers? A man teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown; in one episode he tries to hide a corpse from the other guests in his hotel. The Office? I’m Alan Partridge? Dr Strangelove? The entire output of Laurel and Hardy? Modern Times? All full of violence, misery and thwarted dreams. The Apartment? An apparent romantic comedy centring on a series of affairs and lies and a botched suicide attempt?

Yet whenever I’ve pitched this idea at the editor of a health and safety magazine, the reaction tends to be the same. They laugh, recount their own favourite funny tales of death and serious injury (such as the one about the woman who during a health and safety exhibition was following a group of about 28 health and safety inspectors when she fell down a drain; the demolition workers who blew out the floor they were standing on Wile E. Coyote style; or the man who had his arm ripped off by a machine then reached in to retrieve it with his other arm…

Then they say they can’t do it. Which is a shame really because health and safety managers do worry an awful lot about the image they have in the media. I recall an issue of one of the sector’s best magazines – Safety and Health Practitioner – which raised the issue as its cover story. ‘How the profession can fight the media’s tendency to present health and safety as a killjoy profession’ ran the cover line, heralding a counter-productively po-faced attack on the media along with the apparent minority of health and safety officers who make decisions that discredit the rest of them.

One of the problems here is that health and safety managers seem to have no problem finding bitter humour in poking fun at other people for not listening to them. Elsewhere in the same issue of SHP, there was the now standard picture of some bloke doing some work on a roof without a tether of some sort. Building magazine runs a similar picture each week; typically of some imbecile standing on a sloped roof in shorts working with a chainsaw on some overhanging tree branches. What could possibly go wrong?

Now, having a dig at such people is perfectly reasonable. Or would be except for the fact that the profession and the law believe that an employer has a duty to not only ensure the reasonable health and safety of people but also anticipate accidents brought about by the actions of bloody idiots. How exactly firms are expected to guess at what their staff and customers, some of them thick or mentally ill, may do in all circumstances seems to be rather less clear.

This principle has been reinforced by recent rulings from the House of Lords without much negative comment from the health and safety profession. In fact, such ideas seem to be broadly welcomed in the profession. One of the best examples I can think of to demonstrate this is the now infamous example of an Edinburgh hotel that was fined £400,000 a couple of years ago after a guest climbed out a third floor window for reasons known only to her and fell to her death. This was a complex case and there were some health and safety failings but the apparently key factor – why exactly this woman did what she did – didn’t affect the fine.

The ruling was broadly welcomed in the H&S sector. And that is precisely where things have gone wrong. Forget the out of context quotes and distortions of the media, the profession’s biggest enemy is itself because it works on the dogmatic principle that people need protecting from themselves, when what is apparent is that sometimes people need to take the consequences of their own actions. And that includes other people adding insult to injury.

Sliding doors

 

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Back in 1959 a pair of Californian cardiologists called Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman identified a series of personality traits which tend to go with each other and, they argued, disproportionate levels of heart disease. The traits include an overblown sense of time urgency, a desire to fit as much into each second as possible, excessive competitiveness and aggressiveness and a frustration when other people are too slow, when cars dawdle and when planes are late. Twenty-first century man in other words.

They coined a term for such people which has entered common usage. They called them Type-A personalities. And in Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, one of the characters neatly encapsulates what Type-As are all about. ‘Type-A personalities have a whole subset of diseases that they, and only they, share,’ he claims. ‘The transmission vector for these diseases is the door close button on elevators that only gets pushed by impatient, Type-A people.’

Stephen Fry may have made the news recently for his fatalistic tweeting about his time trapped in a lift, but most are designed with Type A personalities in mind. The most sophisticated lifts are now able to predict human behaviour patterns based on the time of day and anticipate which floor they need to be on. And they go faster than ever before, some at more than 40 feet per second. They could go faster, but there would be a distinct possibility of severe ear pain from the changes in air pressure.

They are also designed to deal with human psychological needs. The lift close button is there to give Type A personalities something to do because waiting four seconds is just too much for them. The rumour is that many lifts have dummy buttons or that managers turn them off even if they do work. Research shows that people would like to wait a maximum of fifteen seconds for a lift to arrive and start to get visibly upset if they have to wait forty seconds. So designers include indicators that show a lift is on its way to give the impression of an immediate response. And if you’ve ever wondered why they have mirrors inside, the answer is partly to do with dealing with feelings of claustrophobia but also to give people one more thing to look at while they’re stuck in the damn lift.

Stressed – the final word if not the last syllable

smiley1So what are we to make of the report from mental health charity Mind that workplace stress costs the UK 10 per cent of its annual gross domestic product? In the language of these things, that’s 12.8 million days lost and a total cost to the economy of £100 billion pounds.

Even by the standards of these surveys that’s an astonishing figure and I wouldn’t argue with anybody whose gut response is that the report is exactly the sort of deranged, attention-seeking PR nonsense you invariably end up with when you carry out research based on the self-interests of your organisation and those of the occupational stress consultants you use to carry out your research. I would never agree of course, but there may even be people whose reaction to the report’s findings that 58 per cent of people feel stressed at work is to make them wonder why the other 42 per cent of people seem to have it so cushy. Yet even these cynics would have to acknowledge that the report taps into a peculiarly contemporary feeling that work is not as enjoyable as it should be. The era of touchyfeely, New Labour, new Millennium self-absorption has not, as some would have you believe, vanished in a puff of harsh reality, but is manifest in a rather big way in our obsession with workplace stress.

And an obsession it is. Look up the word ‘stress’ on Amazon and you’ll get 23,000 results including titles such as ‘How to do More Work in Less Time’, ‘Beyond Anger’ and, thank God, ‘Stress in the Workplace and How to Cause it’. This is very much a recent phenomenon and cannot be explained away solely by referring to the most commonly cited causes such as long working hours, time poverty, undue workloads and bullying bosses. Those are all issues that we have had to face for a long time, and work in the recent past was characterised by a common acceptance that it wasn’t really supposed to be fun anyway – it was a job and probably not the job you dreamed about doing when you were twelve. (The twelve year old Mark Eltringham’s James Herriott inspired dreams of becoming a vet lie crushed beneath the pointy heel of a long career writing and talking about offices.)

My own pet theory about how and when we started to obsess about stress – and please feel free to rubbish it – is based on a borrowing of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle from the field of quantum mechanics. Excuse me as I disappear up myself but the principle states that: ‘the act of observation changes the object being observed.’ In terms of stress, this means that the more you ask people whether they feel stressed and the more you talk about it, the more stressed they claim they are. Most importantly, what we used to call ‘pressure’ seems to be all too often redefined now as ‘stress’, which does us all a disservice, not least those people who are genuinely stressed and have no control over their situation. There are even precedents for the notion of the active observer in the field of management theory, notably as a result of the famous Hawthorne Experiments of the early 20th Century which demonstrated that managers could increase productivity merely by carrying out a survey into lighting conditions. The people in the experiment became more productive just because somebody was paying them attention.

Now, let me crawl back out of Pseud’s Corner and support this idea in more prosaic terms. I’ve always found it telling that the Health and Safety Executive defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them’, because it mentions our reaction to the causes of stress whereas most of the theorising about the subject in books, surveys and articles focuses almost solely on the causes. (Accordingly the publicity for the Mind report mentioned earlier is rather heavier on the duties of employers than the responsibilities of employees, although to be fair to Mind the report itself also draws attention to the subjective response of the individual to pressure.)

In his book Faster, the author James Gleick illustrates the importance of the individual with his description of two well-recognised personality types. Type A people are those who jab the call button while waiting for the lift even though they know it will not arrive any sooner. They have a chronic sense of time urgency, are hard-driven, statusconscious and ambitious. As a result Type A personalities are far more likely to suffer from stress and are two or three times more likely to suffer from angina, heart attacks and sudden death than easy-going Type Bs, regardless of other contributory factors such as smoking. Undoubtedly some (maybe many) people do suffer from undue pressure at work and it causes them problems, often very serious ones. However we run the risk of this issue running away with us by categorising too many people as ‘stressed’ and by allowing them to self-diagnose with the tacit support of GPs.

One of the more insidious outcomes is the attempt by management to deal with the chimera of stress. For a start some measures are welcome but may be entirely unproductive if employees are stressed because of external pressures at home or if they are failing to address their own reactions to what may be normal work pressures. Some measures are inherently wrong; if management has ever come up with something more likely to crush the human spirit than enforced, corporate-endorsed jollity, I have yet to hear of it. More enlightened management may be welcome in dealing with genuine cases of stress but the real message of this survey appears to me to be that we have let the issue get out of hand. Maybe opinion will swing back to a more reasonable position when we realise that, however boring or annoying our colleagues, however dull or pressurised our job, however badly lit and uncomfortable our workplace, however big a git our boss, for most of us work is better and less stressful than its alternative.


March 2017
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