Informa Markets

Author Bio ▼

Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
February 8, 2012

Get the SHP newsletter

Daily health and safety news, job alerts and resources

Working environment – Form over function

Having a productive workforce is essential for companies’ survival but changes in work organisation and management, which, on the surface, seem to be all about making workers more comfortable – and thus more efficient – can actually create the opposite effect. Peter Rimmer explains.

Writing in last month’s SHP, Tim Oldman discussed the design and comfort of the work environment and how “mediocre workplaces can cost business dear”.1 He concentrated on the physical environment and its importance in supporting and fostering worker well-being and thus productivity.

The issues he raised chime in neatly with a recent award-winning film, which addresses new ways of working, change management and all that goes with it. In ‘Work hard, play hard’,2 German film-maker Carmen Losmann explores modern theories of work organisation and management, and exposes a dystopian world of work where people are no more than human capital behind the glass and concrete panels of futuristic buildings, where nothing is meant to look or feel like work, and which merely provide a shell where human resources deliver task-oriented performances.

In considering modern theories of work organisation and management, the 90-minute film raises the wider issues of the place of the individual in a changing world of work. There are meeting points and ‘take-off areas’, not desks or offices; coffee points in open spaces in the ‘non-territorial workplace’, with ‘muzak’ playing in the background and foreground; and endless stairs, lifts and elevated walkways apparently going nowhere. Personal space is denied in this modern, futuristic environment, where the relentless pursuit of maximum productivity and efficiency in deference to ‘the market’ is achieved at the expense of the well-being of the workforce.

A grave new world
So-called smart buildings and architect-designed workspaces are not the only challenge; new ways of working and change management are also contributing to the erosion of individuality and personality in today’s workforce.

Although a gentler version of the ‘lean’ approach is espoused by a fellow contributor in this issue,3 full-on lean techniques, as originally developed by Toyota in Japan, give rise to daily briefings and analyses of performance with an array of graphs and charts, leaving a bewildered workforce to pursue their key performance indicators (KPIs) in a jargon-filled world where communication is preached but rarely understood. “How was yesterday?” asks the manager. “It was great,” replies the worker. “Why was that?” asks the surprised manager. “Because I wasn’t here!” he replies.

Informed by their manager of their daily KPIs, adjusted to their ‘skill sets’ and ‘team code’, employees reluctantly troop back to work, a computer screen on a deserted desk in an anonymous workspace somewhere in the building.
Reception areas resemble five-star hotels, with every visitor checked in and checked out; personal details are assembled and exchanged for a key card, which permits them to a part, or parts of the building to which they are allowed access.

Assessment centres reveal management consultants interrogating junior employees, evaluating their progress through performance review and career-planning interviews, which often result in a critical analysis of their skills and competencies, or assertions of a lack of knowledge, or a degree of incompetence. If you smile you are told to look more serious; if you look serious you are told to look happy. Team-workers are advised to be more self-centred, while highly motivated and conscientious employees are told to think more about others. You can’t win!

CCTV and the company’s intranet become part of an internal ‘security service’, checking every move and inflection, which are then reviewed and analysed. As Tagg remarked: “It was no longer a privilege to be pictured but the burden of a new class to be surveyed.”4

Suicidal tendencies
This may sound like a dark science-fiction vision but it is social reality. Carmen Losmann’s film documents the physical, psychological and economic consequences of unfavourable working conditions and was inspired by a series of suicides at the Renault factory in France, and similar incidents elsewhere in Europe.5

In October 2006, a 39-year-old engineer at Renault’s state-of-the-art Technocentre in Guyancourt, known as the Beehive for its honeycomb design, took his own life. He jumped out of a window at the site, where new cars are designed. Within a period of three months, two of his colleagues followed suit.

In February 2007, this time at one of Peugeot’s car manufacturing plants, a maintenance worker committed suicide. He left a letter, in which he referred to the working conditions and the ‘moral pressure’ to which he had been subjected. Two months later, a worker in the same company hanged himself in a mechanics workshop. The following month, three other workers committed suicide away from the company’s premises and, in July 2007, a 55-year old worker hanged himself in the manufacturing plant.6

Each of these suicides was widely reported in the French media, as were other suicides at a range of companies, including EDF, France Telecom and international food and facilities management service provider, Sodexo. The media viewed these suicides as messages to the respective employers, alerting them to the workers’ inability to cope with the workload and meet the performance targets imposed on them.

Trade unions claimed that excessive isolation of workers due to high workloads and fierce competition was a contributory factor, and called for a review of work organisation. The head of Renault’s CGT union, Pierre Nicolas, commented: “People hear what is happening at the Technocentre and they feel it’s the story of their own working lives. The workers who killed themselves had certain things in common. They felt undervalued, had been criticised, not praised or not promoted, and consequently they felt useless. Their conclusion was: ‘I’m no good, I’m useless, what’s the point?’”

The harsh world of globalisation, competition and market pressures combined with ‘new ways of working’ and employment practices parachuted in from the US and Japan hit France hard and brought tragic consequences. The Renault Technocentre became symbolic of a workplace with management techniques that put profits before people.
According to CGT, the race for profits, pressure of targets and deadlines, as well as ‘excessive individualisation’ and each person being forced to compete with their colleague exacerbated the situation. The union claimed that colleagues did not talk to each other and that convivial areas had been closed, including places to eat, leading to greater isolation of workers within the company.

No doubt there are worse places to work than the Technocentre. This €1bn (£900m) plant, set in 150 acres of landscaped countryside, opened in 1998 and boasted the facilities of a small town, including eight restaurants, a bank, a health insurance office and a training school. Nothing was  forgotten – except the psychological well-being of the workforce.

Technocentre workers are a world away from the robotic, dehumanising production lines. Not for them the monotony of physically churning out cars; this is where Renault’s ‘creative grey matter’ was concentrated – highly qualified engineers and technicians, armed with resources for which James Bond’s Q would kill.

The initial reaction of senior managers and HR directors to the series of suicides was to dismiss the link between the fatalities and work, and so they rejected any responsibility for them. Renault’s CEO, Carlos Ghosn, intervened directly to salvage the public image of his company, given that the suicide of engineers was an indictment of his own programme, called ‘Renault Contrat 2009’.

Ghosn recognised that there was ‘immense pressure’ and a ‘heavy workload’ for engineers, and conceded that if the company did not have the right to fail, each colleague in the company did have the right to do so, indicating a willingness to reduce the moral pressure on individuals.

At Peugeot, and also at Renault, management opened a dedicated psychological helpline for workers. The company also held training for managers on methods of detecting members of staff whose situations appeared to be critical. But it was a case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.

Professor Christophe Dejours, of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, one of France’s top higher-education establishments, has said that although there were suicides linked with work before, people actually killed themselves somewhere else, thus making it difficult to make the connection.

What had changed was that people are now more vulnerable in the working environment to injustice, pressure, harassment, disappointment and arbitrary things that were out of their control.

Prof Dejours believes that a general loss of solidarity had led to people feeling lonely, isolated and – especially – afraid of losing their job. He says: “When people were linked more closely there were rules of politeness and doing the right thing. There was cooperation, teamwork and respect.

“Now, it’s about individual evaluation, competition between workers, and everyone for themselves. You realise your colleagues are working against you and you are all alone.”

According to the Health and Safety Executive in the UK, the number of people reporting that they are experiencing work-related stress at a level that they believe is making them ill appears to have doubled since the early 1990s. In 2010/2011, some 400,000 cases of occupational stress were reported – comprising 35 per cent of all work-related illness reported.7

The nature and forms of organisational changes in UK workplaces are increasingly characterised by high job insecurity, long working hours, inflexible work contracts, and a changing psychological contract between employer and employee. Annual restructuring, cost-reduction programmes, use of short-term contract staff, ‘culture change’ programmes, redundancies and outsourcing have slowly become standard in many companies.

Insecurity in the labour market and the growing shift from permanent employment to short-term contracts leads to a decline in mutual loyalty between employees and employers. It also leads to demotivation, feelings of insecurity at work, and a general deterioration in workers’ well-being.

Quality of work is essential for companies’ survival; dignity at work is a pre-requisite of a good psychosocial environment. Working together requires leadership from competent and effective managers, the involvement and participation of the workforce, and the development of a culture based on the positive rather than the negative – recognising and rewarding success.

These themes will figure significantly in the next Healthy Workplaces Campaign, the theme of which is ‘Working together for risk prevention’. The Europe-wide campaign will be officially launched on 18 April 2012 in Brussels.   


  1. Oldman, Tim (2012): ‘Better by design’, in SHP January 2012, Vol.30 No.1, pp45-46 –
  2. ‘Work hard, play hard’, directed by Carmen Losman, won the Healthy Workplaces Award, sponsored by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, at the 54th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film, in October 2011 – about/competitions/hw_film_award_2011
  3. See feature in this issue by Dr Julian Hought –
  4. Tagg, J (1993): The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, Macmillan Press Ltd
  5. Pascal Ughetto, Institute for Economic and Social Research, European industrial relations observatory online, 14 January 2008 – eiro/2007/11/articles/fr0711039i.htm
  6. The Guardian online – ‘Heading for a breakdown’, by Kim Willsher, 10 March 2007 – 2007/mar/10/careers.workplacestress

Peter Rimmer was on the jury for the Healthy Workplaces award – see page 4 for more information

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


Related Topics

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments