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Social contagions and the working week

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Monday, 14 March 2005

Remember RSI? When the repetitive strain injury scare was on in earnest - about 20 years ago - we went through hoops.

As is our habit, we politely arranged ourselves into two ideological trenches - one suspected malingering. The other asserted with its usual vigilance, vim and vituperation their taboo against “blaming the victim”. The truth, as ever was somewhere else.

My friend said it was all bunk. He wasn’t a “blame the victim” guy. But he’d been working in London and guess what? They had virtually no RSI there. How come? In fact, there wasn’t much RSI anywhere but Australia, where it was an epidemic.


So we should blame the victim - right? No-one really knows what happened, but most workers weren’t putting it on. A fellow university student I knew had RSI and was in both pain and anguish. Her physical pain at the keyboard was acute. And the regimen she ended up on retarded her productivity and threatened to cripple her career.

She’s fine now, working away as an academic. With treatment and her careful regimen, the RSI went away. Funny thing is it has disappeared as a major concern in Australia as mysteriously as it came. RSI had a substantial psychological component but it was also a phenomenon of mass psychology.

It spread through Australia like a contagion and other countries didn’t catch it.

There are other phenomena like this. No-one has plausibly explained the extent executive salary rises in terms of changes in technology or market structure. At least in part the explanation is that executives always had the power as “insiders at the top” to screw more rent out of the system. But it’s only the recent celebration of market forces and umpteen other changes in social expectations that gave them the nerve to exploit their latent power.

There’s another epidemic that has spread its contagion across our land - workers, particularly men, working late at the office. It’s been explained as a result of “globalisation”, but that’s more a reflection of the sloppiness with which we use the term.

Globalisation improved our productivity, and increased most people’s incomes - certainly lots of those who work late at the office. But why didn’t they just take lower wage rises and keep the hours they had?


I think mass psychology offers part of the explanation. As Australia’s economy faltered from the mid 70s, we feared for our “competitiveness” (another “catchall” word we use as sloppily as “globalisation”). Though the ads talked of working smarter not harder, the subtext of a great social transformation was that we had to change our ways from the sleepy, lucky country we’d been.

One wages bargain after another stressed “productivity” - the removal of a tea break here, more flexible working hours there. Where this was negotiated transparently, the tradeoffs were fair enough. But there was also a change in ethos, particularly at the office. A little more work, a little longer hours proved your dedication to your task, giving you a better chance of promotion - or was that just reducing your chance of the sack?

This set off a working hours “arms race”. Office workers stayed back to demonstrate their commitment to the company. Others had to match them. Some figures suggest we became the most overworked in the western world!

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First published in the Courier-Mail on March 9, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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