Monday, February 27, 2020

No Time to Smell the Flowers?

This is what Bertrand Russell, Nobel Prize winner, mathematician and philosopher wrote in 1930:
The emphasis upon competition in modern life is connected with a general decay of civilised standards such as must have occurred in Rome after the Augustan age. Men and women appear to have become incapable of enjoying the more intellectual pleasures. The art of general conversation, the knowledge of good literature—who in our age cares for anything so leisurely?

Some American students took me walking in the spring through a wood on the borders of their campus; it was filled with exquisite wild flowers, but not one of my guides knew the name of even one of them. What use would such knowledge be? It could not add to anybody’s income.

The cure for this lies in admitting the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life.
It seems little has changed in 76 years.

And yet…

I think the root of the problem is rather simple. There are tens of thousands of clever, highly-paid people working in marketing, advertising and product management whose almost sole aim in life is to convince us, the consumers, that happiness can be found through owning whatever they have to sell. Just about every marketing campaign is the same at heart: by this product and you'll be happy ever after.

What's more, attaining happiness (or winning prestige, or success, or becoming a sex-god) by the simple action of making a purchase is so much simpler than spending years in building a mature attitude to life. Instant gratification is the modern mantra, especially throughout the developed world. Who wants to spend time and effort when you can gain the same result immediately, just by spending money?

The media also glorify the rich, devoting acres of newsprint and hours of TV time to their smallest doings. They are always presented as carefree, popular and endlessly fascinating: despite the reality of break-ups, acrimonious feuds, drugs, suicides and bitchiness on a grand scale.

The rich, of course, are like everyone else. Sometimes happy, sometimes not. But the result of all this propaganda on behalf of riches is a simple belief that money equals happiness. More money produces more happiness. If you're wealthy, but still dissatisfied, you just aren't rich enough. That's maybe why so many rich people today go on accumulating more and more money, when they probably can't spend what they have.

It's inevitable, of course. Companies need to sell goods. No one every increased sales by telling the public they can be just as happy without buying what they have to offer. And sometimes they're right. Modern consumer goods make life far easier and potentially more pleasant. They just aren't the answer to everything.

That's where people like you come in—the people who read this blog, presumably because you believe, as I do, that there's more to life than getting and spending. It's up to every one of us to tell the world what we believe; to add our voices into the mix to produce a better balance with the commercials. People are hungry for what we have to say. Despite all the efforts of businesses, most people still don't fully buy the view that getting and spending money is the only route to happiness. Besides, wealth is distributed so unequally in our world that most people stand no chance of ever gaining enough to put the equation to the test.

Speak out. Tell people about this blog. Add your thoughts and comments. Together we can make a difference.

P.S. This is my first post after returning from Mexico with a bad chest infection. I go on vacation and come home a wreck! If it seems less coherent than usual, blame the medication.
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Friday, February 10, 2020

Can Might Be Made Right?

An Ethical Basis for Workplace Power

Power is everywhere in the workplace. It's an essential part of leadership, whether it's formal power by virtue of position and authority; or informal power derived from expertise, influence or personal charisma. Knowledge is also said to bring power—and having the ear of the right people certainly offers a kind of power to the person who can sway their viewpoint.

Since power exists in many forms, and can be used in all kinds of ways, the correct use of power is near the heart of any civilized and ethical approach to leadership. Without power, leadership scarcely exists. So how and when to use that power, for what purposes, and with what intentions, are decisions no leader can avoid.

There's no need for a long discussion of the nature and sources of power. Power is power and we all know it when we see it. Anyone who can compel, persuade or entice others to do what he or she wants exercises power over them. There's the power to spend resources; the power to make decisions that are binding on others; and the power to give employment or take it away. If you grant rewards or set punishments, you're exercising power.

Power may be common in organizations, but it's not allocated evenly. People at the top have more formal power, plus the power of patronage and granting favors; but the most exalted executive still has to share that power with others, unless he or she is able to do everything unaided. And even the lowliest and humblest worker has the power to waste time, slack off when the boss isn't looking, and—in extreme cases—to sabotage effective working.

How can leaders use power in humane ways? How can they allow the people they lead to retain their dignity? If power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton claimed, this looks like a hopeless task. Perhaps we can start by distinguishing the four essential questions we need to ask in judging whether power is being used in ethical ways:
  1. Where does the power come from? Is it legitimate? Does the person wielding the power have an agreed right to do so? Usurpers start from a position that is unethical and dishonest.

  2. How is it being used? Openly or covertly? Are the means appropriate to the nature of the power: for example, instruction or persuasion? Power deployed through threats, blackmail, bribery or violent force surely can't be ethical in the working environment. Bad ways of using it make for bad power.

  3. What is the power being used for? The ends may not be enough to justify the means, but bad ends will surely disqualify the use of power to further them.

  4. What's the intention behind the use of power? If it's not benign, using power isn't going to be ethical. Bad intentions corrupt whatever means are used to bring them about.
If the use of any kind of workplace power is to be ethical, it must conform to these guidelines:
  • It must always be legitimate. Legitimate power includes all kinds of authority granted by the organization, as well as power arising from personal achievements, knowledge, expertise or character. Illegitimate or usurped power (deceit, blackmail, bribery, brute strength, threats, violence, corruption, trickery or dishonesty) can never be ethical.

  • It must be used in civilized ways. To be ethical, power must be used in ways that are consistent with the well-being and dignity of everyone involved. That rules out bullying, taking advantage of private knowledge, preying on the weak and granting favors in return for dishonest or unethical actions. It also precludes discrimination, sexual harassment, pay-offs and exploitation of others for whatever purpose.

  • It must have an ethical purpose. If the purpose for which the power is used is itself unethical (sharp practice, harming or exploiting others, dishonest gain, concealing immoral or illegal acts, personal advancement at another's expense, financial chicanery), it doesn't matter what kind of power we're talking about, how it's deployed or who benefits. It's unethical, period. In a civilized society, the ends can never justify the means, nor the means justify the ends.

  • The intention behind the use of power must itself be ethical. Workplace power cannot be ethical if it's used to harm or belittle others; to cause embarrassment or spread deceit; or to further your own interests at the direct expense of the legitimate interests of other people. You can win, but the competition has to be fair. And you can look out for your own interests, so long as you do so in open, honest and ethical ways. Winning by cheating, whether anyone finds out or not, isn't acceptable. Civilized people don't play with marked cards or loaded dice.
In the end, power is ethically neutral. As George Bernard Shaw, the British playwright and political writer, said:
"Power does not corrupt men; but fools, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power."
Like happiness, ethics come from what is within you, not from externals. If your use of power becomes abusive, it's because of who and what you are—and how you choose to live your life.

P.S. I shall be away on vacation until February 24th, with no access to emails or the Internet, so there will now be a short break in postings. See you when I return.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2020

Patience and Perspective

The TV news anchor turns to the guest expert and asks: "What's your perspective on the latest statement by the White House?" A thousand pundits claim to bring "a fresh perspective" to some problem they hope you have. Marketers claim their products "will change your perspective"—on diapers, or computer software, or whatever. Everyone, it seems, has a perspective; and nearly everyone else wants to change it right now to match theirs.

Like all overused words, perspective has lost most of its original meaning: a way to represent objects on paper while retaining the effect of distance between them and the viewer. Now it usually means little more than "opinion," as in "this is our party's perspective on the budgetary cuts being proposed by Senator Bigwig." This is a pity. The problems of reducing a three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional picture make a much better analogy with how the human mind works.

An artist must reduce a scene with height, breadth and depth—the familiar three dimensions—to a drawing that has only length and height. Done badly, the result is comic, with all the wrong size relationships between objects. Before perspective was discovered, pictures bore only a symbolic resemblance to what people saw. The size of a painted figure depended more on their importance than reality. Pharaoh would dwarf hundreds of enemies because the painter knew who was paying. Figures were drawn in profile because no one know how to make them look solid, let alone show their real size and distance relationship to anyone else in the same scene.

Our minds face a similar difficulty in reducing the unworkable complexity of the world to something we can grasp and act on. Instead of three dimensions, they must cope with many more: time, for example; importance, urgency, meaning and relevance. What reaches your conscious mind must come complete with a sense of what it is, why it matters and what you need to do about it.

This perspective, the mental one, relies on trickery, just as physical perspective does. The skilled artist tricks the eye into seeing depth where none exists. The brain tricks the conscious mind into seeing something as complete and solid and ready for action, where there is little or no substance to justify the picture. We believe we understand our world. In reality, all we have is an incomplete model, got up to look like the real thing.

How does your mind trick you into thinking you have a complete picture? By using your assumptions, values, beliefs, opinions and expectations. It presents you with limited and partial information and uses those extra elements to fill in the missing pieces.

Your assumptions, values, beliefs and opinions fill in the blanks. They supply assumed answers to the questions you ought to be asking of the situation—and of yourself. Do I understand this clearly? Precisely what does this mean? Am I sure? Like a painter creating the illusion of perspective, your mind takes one or two understandable pieces of information and completes the picture from all those pre-set categories and assumed patterns. It seems real, though most of the image is based on little more than past ideas, guesswork and imagination.

Assumptions are close at hand, quick and simple to use, and feel justified on the basis of experience or prior expectations. They are also dangerous and unreliable. This event may fit into a known pattern, or it may not. Assuming it does means accepting a risk you do not need to take; a risk born of complacency and the unwillingness to wait long enough to find a definitive answer.

It's hard to avoid making assumptions. You do it without becoming aware of what you have done. Haste and pressure, as always, make the problem worse. Without sufficient time or presence of mind to stop and consider, you move ahead on the basis of an assumption that's no better than a guess. But you still move. And when so much is pushing you from behind, any movement can seem preferable to standing still and waiting until the situation becomes clearer.

Immediate gratification has become the characteristic requirement of our times. People at all levels of society see it as a right: to have whatever they want—an answer, a piece of information, personal satisfaction, a product or a service—and have it now. Fast food, fast turnaround, instant messages and immediate information via the Internet; everything you wish for, and all without a wait.

TV news programs bring comment and evaluation of events before the smoke has died away and the people involved have caught their breath. They have "experts" on call, ready to go on air at a moment's notice with comments and opinions. Yet what does it amount to? Clichés, jargon and statements so qualified as to be meaningless. You cannot blame the speaker, save for accepting such a pointless assignment, whatever the fee. The blame lies with another assumption: that the public attention-span is now too short to allow proper evaluation of events before being told their significance.

Patience, so the saying goes, is a virtue. Maybe. More importantly though, it's a certain antidote to false and hurried assumptions. Given the patience to wait before reaching a definite decision, much may become clear that was murky or hidden before. This age prizes action so much it ignores the benefits of holding back when action must be premature. And so people hurry ahead blindly, like lemmings approaching a cliff above the ocean, intent only on doing something, anything, to content those for whom sitting and thinking is an obvious waste of time.

The perspectives of Slow Leadership are free of such tomfoolery. To wait, to think, to consider alternatives and allow the true facts to show themselves; these are marks of maturity and wisdom. Only a fool rushes towards the cliff edge when a little patience might have shown him how to avoid it.

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Monday, February 06, 2020

In Whom Can We Trust?

I seem to have been thinking and writing a great deal about trust recently. There's so little of it in the world at the moment. Whether it's politics, business or the media, nobody seems willing or able to trust anyone else's word, their honesty or even their patriotism, hence an increasingly polarized and confrontational atmosphere. You cannot cooperate where there's no trust. You cannot have healthy debate between differing viewpoints. What you get instead is something close to open warfare, where every dirty trick is fair.

In leadership, trust is fundamental. That's why this prevailing lack of trust may explain some of the stress people are facing in the workplace.

If leaders don't trust their subordinates, they must either do all the work themselves, or constantly check to see it has been done. Either course increases pressure and workload—and involves them in activities they shouldn't waste their time doing. Of course, their subordinates quickly realize they aren't trusted. No only does this create a poisonous atmosphere, it increases pressure on the subordinate as well. A boss who routinely doesn't trust you isn't going to back you up, or come to your assistance if things go wrong. The only way to protect yourself is to make sure you never give him or her any excuse to find fault. How do you do that? By avoiding risk, novelty or fresh ideas. Stick exactly to what you're told, even if it's wrong; show no initiative; and always cover your backside, however much time and resource you waste by doing so—and however many opportunities you pass up along the way.

When subordinates lose trust in their leaders, their anxiety rises to stratospheric levels. Maybe the boss is taking them in the wrong direction, threatening their bonuses, promotion prospects and long-term employment? If there's a problem, will the boss sell them down the river to save him or herself? Will the boss get a promotion in return for handing out pink slips? Hide any difficulties. Don't tell the boss more than you must. If there's trouble, conceal it as long as you can.

Yes, communication stops instantly trust is gone. Bosses who see their subordinates as untrustworthy won't share information if they can avoid it. Anxious employees aren't going to volunteer any information to management, especially if they fear it could be used against them. In an organization where trust has collapsed, the only form of communication that still works at full throttle is the rumor-mill, adding to the general feeling of paranoia.

Command-and-control management is the ultimate negation of trust, coming as it does with the in-built assumption people do only what they are made to do under threat of sanctions. Is it any wonder our longest-established corporations suffer from confrontational relations with organized labor? There are decades of distrust to remind both sides why they need to treat every negotiation as something close to a military campaign; and every outcome as victory or defeat.

At the individual level, haste, pressure and harassment are all enemies of trust. Trust demands you give the other person time and space to produce the result. You can explain the need for haste, but once you place the task in their hands, you must leave it to them. Following up to check it's being done with the speed you requested is already a small betrayal. Putting someone under pressure to produce results says you don't trust them to understand the need and offer you the results needed without your badgering. Harassment says you neither trust them, nor even believe in their willingness to do their job without the threat of punishment.

What's the answer? In whom can we trust?

Trust is said to be earned, but I think that's wrong. Trust has first to be given—and given freely. If the result of assuming others are trustworthy proves to be positive, greater trust results. Over time, the atmosphere becomes suffused with trust, so that even the occasional betrayal (all human beings are fallible) won't change the prevailing sense of community. Trust not given at the outset, more even than trust betrayed, starts a negative spiral That first gift of trust—freely offered, without any proof that it's deserved—is the key. Without it, there's no possibility any further trust can be "earned."

We need the courage, as leaders, always to start from an implicit assumption of trust. Then we need to maintain that position. Most people have suffered multiple betrayals by the time they've been in work for even a few years. They won't give full trust instantly. But if you persist, they will come to trust you; nearly everyone prefers it to the alternative. And with that trust will come other benefits—open communication, fresh ideas, greater initiative, support offered before it's even sought. As the boss, you're fallible too. Subordinates who trust you will either save you, if they can, or work to dig you out of the mess, if they can't stop you in time.

Remember trust involves obligations too. Your people need to be able to trust you to look out for them; to stand up for their interests and do all you can to help them survive and prosper. But you knew that, didn't you? Great leaders have an unswerving loyalty to those who follow them. It's so much an essential of real leadership, it's hard to imagine anyone can suppose they can be a leader and treat their people with anything less than total devotion. Perhaps the best definition of a dictator is someone who demands complete loyalty from others, but gives none in return.

I do not believe you can practice genuine leadership without a fundamental commitment to trust. Slow Leadership should, I think, go even further and demand no less than everything you have to give: trust, loyalty, openness and a firm belief in the essential goodness of humanity. In return, it will offer you something no amount of money can buy—the lifelong love, admiration and loyalty of those who have the privilege of working for you.

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Friday, February 03, 2020

But How Can We Get Better...?

Work/Life balance is flavor of the month—probably because consulting firms reckon it's a potential bonanza for expensive work. Media articles, on and off-line, repeat the same points as survey after survey (almost all funded by consulting firms, it seems) report people are becoming tired of trying to fit their lives around ballooning work demands.

These surveys are strong on describing the problem, but rarely offer anything more. Take this example from a report of a survey commissioned by Key Group, a Pittsburgh, Penn. consulting firm:
Many companies simply don't have a culture that emphasizes work/life balance. There's a prevailing attitude among employers that employees are there to work and their personal life, or lack thereof, is irrelevant. Let me bluntly say that if you think this way, it will harm your company. Guaranteed.
Sadly, they have far less to say about how to do better—probably because they think the answer is obvious: hire the consulting firm.

The more important question is this: What can organizations do to improve work/life balance without losing out to less scrupulous competitors?

One answer is to trust employees more. For decades—probably for centuries—bosses have been working on the assumption the only way to get people to pay attention to their work is to keep them firmly in the workplace. Even "comfort breaks" have been regulated. Much of the resistance to allowing people to work from home stems from a concern they might not be working all the time, despite rationalizations about lack of team contact and social isolation. In the US, lunch-times are frequently reduced to 30 minutes or less: not enough time to get to a shop, or a pharmacy, or pick up the dry cleaning, let alone eat and relax as well. If all these domestic chores must be pushed into evening hours, it's no wonder families have little opportunity to sit down together for meals or conversation. People want more time to support and be with those they care about and to be involved in activities that matter to them; all the surveys show this. According to one survey:
…among all age groups, the opportunity for work/life balance was cited as the second most important recruitment/retention criterion. More than half(56%) of today's employees rate work/life balance as a key job selection criterion, with a roughly equal percentage of men (56%) andwomen (58%) listing "balance" as critical.
Surely what matters is completing the required work on time and to standard, not when during the day it gets done? If someone wants to take two hours in the middle of the day for a domestic activity, why should anyone be concerned? So long as that person fulfills his or her work obligations, when they do them is of no consequence.

Yet in the prevailing "command and control" mindset, it surely does matter. Employees, it seems, can be trusted to fight and die for their country, even vote for a government, but not to do what they're paid for, unless someone is watching them all the time. Does anyone watch the inhabitants of the executive suite to make sure they don't take an extra half hour at lunchtime? Are they expected to stay at their desks every moment between the official time for starting work and whenever their boss finally goes home?

In one organization I knew well, a new CEO made a habit of coming to work on Saturday mornings—and expected all the other senior and middle-managers to do the same. Most of them had no idea why they had to attend, but word went around that anyone found "missing" would be marked down as lacking in commitment and denied future promotion. So, every weekend, lines of managers came to work and sat at their desks wondering what to do. When the CEO left, usually around 12:30 p.m., there was a frantic rush for the parking lot. Was anything useful accomplished? No. Did a lot of families suffer disruption and lose valuable time to spend together? Of course.

So why did the CEO do it? He was a famous workaholic and operated on the tried-and-tested authoritarian principle that "what's good for me is good for all you underlings as well." Workaholics often believe working long hours equates to higher productivity and increases their value. Most actually exhibit poor time management, or can't trust anyone enough to delegate, which creates lower levels of productivity. As is typical for such people, this CEO's devotion to long hours didn't result in business success and he was fired in less than two years.

So much for the supposed benefits of a gargantuan work ethic.

The simplest way to get past a culture of uncivilized disregard for the human being in the workplace is the oldest: treat others as you want to be treated yourself. Can you be trusted to do a fair day's work for your salary? Of course you can. So why can't you trust others to be like you? Only jailers and auditors (is there always a difference?) demand people keep a strict account of every minute of their workplace "sentence."

Lighten up. Most people are honest to a fault. The few who aren't will quickly be found out—by their colleagues, probably. We all have lives to handle outside of work. It's time employers recognized the fact and stopped treating their workforce like naughty children. Success is defined in many ways, but almost never by how much or how little clock-time is devoted to work.

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Thursday, February 02, 2020

Will Time Management Help?

The Chicago Sun-Times has weighed in on the question of maintaining work/life balance:
As companies run leaner operations with fewer workers, they're asking more from those still employed. While the increased productivity makes companies more profitable, the greater demands on workers can leave many feeling overwhelmed, burned out and losing any work-life balance they might have had.
The article draws heavily on ideas about time management put forward by Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check E-Mail In the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work. Echoing some of the ideas of Slow Leadership, Morgenstern says people are subjected to what she calls an "instant response culture" that operates in "staccato" mode. What's needed is more of a "legato," with enough time for the thoughtful, more complex approaches companies need.

The newspaper quotes Erin Brennan, 29, a vice president of Hunter Public Relations in New York, who claims that adopting this approach has given her a greater sense of control over her workday, allocating her time carefully to ensure she has time to focus on what matters to her most, while still allowing some "empty" time for the unplanned, unexpected tasks that crop up in any day. Brennan told the paper:
I'll tell myself, 'You're in staccato mode now. Slow down and focus. Then I can get into the mind-set of, 'I'm going to really concentrate on this now.' After all, it's the long-term projects that are the reason your company has you on board.
Using effective time management techniques may well be beneficial, but I think the principal reason for Ms. Brennan's success is her willingness to set priorities and stick to them, not leap from one "urgent" task to the next in a random fashion.

There's another point Ms. Morgenstern makes that's worth thinking about. She says:
Sometimes it's not you! Sometimes it's them holding you back.
One of the main reasons for stress when things get tough is superstition: specifically the one that says when things go wrong it's because someone "up there" is punishing you for something you've done wrong. It's believing the Universe has shifted itself specifically to make your life a misery. Put like that, it's plainly ludicrous, but you still constantly hear people asking "Why me?" whenever something goes wrong. Why you? There's no reason—and definitely no guilt. It just happens. Human minds are poor at accepting the working of blind chance. We seem naturally to assume that everything has a specific cause.

So if you're feeling overworked and pressured, try these approaches. They really work.
  • Stand back and set proper priorities, then stick to them.
    Ration your time carefully.

  • Allow some time every day for the unexpected.

  • When things go wrong, never assume there's any reason beyond chance. Let go of any feelings of guilt. Simply get on with what needs to be done.

  • If you find yourself working in "staccato" mode (or even "prestissimo"), slow down, take a deep breath and go back to a mixture of "legato" and "a temp giusto."

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Wednesday, February 01, 2020

What Constitutes Overwork?

Before we conclude, as the two recent surveys noted below did, that more than 30% of American and British employees are chronically overworked, I think it would be a good idea to define what counts as being "overworked." Is it doing more than a certain number of hours of work in a specified period? Is it feeling that you have to handle more than you are comfortable with? Are there symptoms, physical or mental, that indicate the condition?

The reason for my question is a practical one. It's easy to diagnose overwork at the extreme: when people collapse under the strain. But the effect of work must depend, at least in part, on the constitution, health, character and attitude of the individual. What is an acceptable level of work for you—young, fit, eager and quick—may be guaranteed to reduce me—old, tired, not too healthy and losing interest in my job—to a state of exhaustion.

If we're to convince employers and legislators that there's a limit to what the human mind and body should be asked to handle, short of collapse, there need to be some agreed measures or symptoms that are accepted as indicators of generally excessive workload.

In March 2005, Management Issues reported a survey published by the British non-profit Working Families. In reporting that more than a third of their survey sample felt stressed by overwork, the survey authors cited "increased irritability, sleeplessness, lack of exercise and exhaustion" as indicators of problems. However, they also pointed out that many people in their survey "drink too much and eat unhealthy food," implying that this too was caused somehow by stress. Or were at least some of the symptoms more linked to a poor lifestyle than overwork? In reporting work problems, we need to be careful not to assume that any and every issue is due to work pressure. Making excessive claims easily undermines an otherwise strong case.

The same survey also claimed that morale and productivity fall as working hours increase. That's a striking finding, but the evidence presented is sketchy. If working long hours lowers productivity, that would be a powerful argument to persuade employers not to take that route.

The second survey, Overwork in America, published by the Families and Work Institute, relied largely on individuals' statements for its findings. People were asked questions like: "How often have you felt overwhelmed by how much you had to do at work in the last month?" This gives an excellent image of what people are feeling, but it's still a subjective measure. Opponents could claim that feeling "overwhelmed" says as much or more about the individual as the situation. What overwhelms one person may scarcely ruffle another.

Of course, if large numbers report feeling overwhelmed, that might suggest the reports are sufficiently widespread to be objective. In the survey, 27% of people said they were overwhelmed by how much work they had to do often or very often in the previous month, which suggests it can't be dismissed as complaints from a handful of malcontents. The problem, however, remains. One person's overwork is another person's acceptable, if hard, workload, making it easy for unscrupulous employers to ignore the problems. Until there is some more objective and widely accepted measure of an effective workload, it will be fairly easy for organizations to set whatever standard they wish, short of general collapse.

Do you have ideas about how best to measure the presence of overwork? If you do, please send me a comment for publication on this site. Maybe together we can begin to find a way that will be accepted by employers and politicians as an indicator that work demands have gone beyond an acceptable level.

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