If you weren’t aware, the year of the largest loss of working days through the withdrawal of labour (strikes) on record in the UK was 1926. Showing SERIOUS unrest between employer and employee (or as I like to call them organisations and people).

An extract from the Office of National Statistics shares this:

The highest annual total for working days lost on record was 162.2 million in 1926, the year of the general strike. Since 1926, there have been only three years when the annual total of working days lost has exceeded 20 million:

  • 23.9 million in 1972, due mainly to a strike by coal miners
  • 29.5 million in 1979, due mainly to the so-called “winter of discontent” (a number of strikes in the public sector in the winter of 1978 to 1979)
  • 27.1 million in 1984, due mainly to a strike by coal miners

Since 2000, the highest annual total of working days lost was 1.4 million in 2011, due mainly to two large public sector strikes.

I’m not suggesting we’re about to enter into a massive strike.

Another form of absence is work-related stress.

The latest report from the UK HSE is here

  1. 1.4 million days were lost in industrial disputes in 2011.
  2. 17.9 million days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety (aka overwork or toxic workplaces) in 2019/20.

I wonder what the reasons might be for this more up-to-date version of why people aren’t at work and we’ve lost working days?

The right answer is likely to be around toxic organisations, crappy systems of work or oppressive management. Or any permutation and sadly sometimes, all 3.

And yet I’ve seen a post in a reputable HR journal and a tweet today from an HR consultancy that made me think 1926, 1972, 1979, or 1984 wants its HR approach back. And absolutely ignoring 2019/20’s disturbing losses.

We’re grappling with the continued mid-pandemic working and living with COVID-19 and already the retrograde rhetoric is appearing about employers asserting control and seeing employees as problems.

The debates are raging about the place of work — and we mean the office for knowledge workers (of anything between 25 and 45% of the working population).

The place of work for health and social care, education, utility providers, retail operators, logistics suppliers and more key workers, has remained less of a battleground and more a safety-first but operate largely as before. I’m not denying this is without debate though. Already seeing “must-have” vaccinations in the care industry and other areas. But still, key workers still garner our utmost appreciation and respect perhaps a little less nobly or noticeably.

We’re seeing polarised views of work from anywhere, remote-only and place-only that are confusing, aggravating and in some cases damaging and dangerous.

The article I read this week was like a searing throwback to darker times of those combative employer/employee relations. This phrase was particularly galling “If you allow every employee to determine what is right for them you will have anarchy. You must stay in control.”

Let’s remind ourselves of this first: Without people your organisation is nothing. Even highly automated production lines have people repairing and servicing machines; driving trucks to deliver the products; sales and marketing closing accounts; financiers sorting out the invoicing and banking; HR recruiting those people and helping them stay safe etc.

But to label people as troublesome (by using anarchy as a detrimental term without a shred of evidence that this would be the case) unless they are dominated by the employer is dangerous, dictatorial speak. It aggravated me so much I refrained from responding too much on the post for fear of overuse of expletives until yesterday when I posited how incendiary and divisive and out-of-touch this tone was.

For without those people’s hands, heads, and hearts optimised, you’re malfunctioning or even dysfunctional. You might get by but you’re a pale imitation of a high-performing organisation.

People who are enabled, cared for, and who lean into their work with some gusto because they want to and feel it, and without these things you’re less (of an organisation) than you could be.

It’s psychology and its physics. We are not at our best when we are oppressed.

Fearful mind, impaired abilities. Proven by neuroscience and the physical nature of blood flow, heightened anxiety occupying mental processing and the energy loss through emotional over-labour.

You — in the organisation sense here — will be impairing people to do their best work with draconian, uncaring, unfair, inflexible and domineering ways you run your company. You may think control is all, but think, Star Wars (the tighter the Empire’s grip, the more star systems fall through your fingers).

Yes, you can treat people badly and replace them by hiring other people regularly, but if your organisation is that controlling it becomes a toxic environment, not only are you damaging people’s lives in the process, you’re burdening the state healthcare with people who are physically and certainly psychologically wounded by that experience. Not to mention the loss of revenue through constantly discarding people in favour of others that you’ll do the same to.

It makes no economic sense to treat people as disposable commodities this way. It certainly makes even less moral sense to be harsh, cruel, uncaring and inconsiderate to people in this way.

This ill-conceived and poorly articulated article also claimed this:

“As an employer, you will get excuses, reasons, validations and guilt-tripping all thrown at you about why someone cannot work from the office, or return from furlough, but at the end of the day it is the employer, not the employee who makes the decisions.”

Insinuating that people are dodging something. Yet in reality, it’s more likely something that people feel is no longer deemed necessary. The directive here is “Don’t listen to them, they have no validity to their position, get them back regardless.” Like that’s a good thing.

We know enough about performance under duress. It’s not good. It’s not sustainable. It’s inappropriate and it’s damaging. To people and performance.

Performance in flow is good. It’s rewarding, stimulating, self-worth increases, adaptability and even innovation likely to flow.

It’s perhaps not incredible that loyalty, commitment, ingenuity, adaptability, vigour, drive and motivation aren’t considered worthy of any form of scorecard or evaluation bar them being buried in lots of other measures in the annual engagement survey. Something that I’m sure many companies do because they feel they have to, not because they want to see how they might be able to positively impact their own people’s work and lives.

Douglas McGregor posited this in the 1960s. Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury saw this in the 1950s. Ricardo Semler proved this in the 1980s. Jos de Blok enhanced this in the 2000s.

This relationship — between you, the employer and your/their work is a complex thing.

It used to be mechanistic as a departure from less than hyper-fast craft. Taylorism in the early 1900s. It created huge advances in the mass production of consumer goods. Scientific discovery drove product and manufacturing innovation. And then the rises in standards of living.

Until it all backfired.

The IPCC report in climate devastation and criticality this week proved that we’ve asset-stripped, over-extracted and polluted the world because of that consumption-based lifestyle.

Yet around the time McGregor and others started to realise there was more complexity to the work/people/employer relationship (particularly in that Taylorist principle) we realised fossil fuel consumption particularly was damaging. And we know the rest of this story so with the greatest of respect to the absolute catastrophe we’ve created here, back to the topic: You and the need to reboot the working system.

You didn’t/don’t want a damaged planet. We’re all a bit complicit in single-use plastic purchases, and using a car, and buying a mobile device and so on. We know this and we do feel under some pressure to curtail our spending and buying and waste. So we’re doing our bit. Most of us. You probably worry about your children and their children and that’s a challenge many of us face.

Governments aren’t always helping in the way we’d like. Apart from the Green Party in the UK and other such political bodies.

And also the activists like Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace and others are doing what they can to raise awareness, activism and reverse the damage or at least halt it for now.

Companies/organisations we work for are equally sinners and occasional saints when it comes to the environment as they are to their own people.

You might want your employer to do more in both regards (planet and people), but it’s just you in amongst hundreds or thousands.

But as the excellent Megan Reitz (along with John Higgins and Emma Day-Duro) in their published report on employee activism title: “The do’s and don’ts of employee activism: how organizations respond to voices of difference — there is a fightback and resistance to this control (Ctrl). The ALT (alternative) and DELETE (remove the over-dominance being attempted or encouraged).

Employee activism is on the rise. Think back to #metoo; to the tragedy surrounding the murder of George Floyd in the USA and the rise of #blacklivesmatter and the spotlight on racism.

We saw people resign from one of the tech industry’s once positive stories of different ways of working at Basecamp — because of attempts to “control” debate and diversity & inclusion activism.

It would appear that this activism flies in the face of that article I mentioned earlier as “the employer has the control.” They (employers) don’t as much as they believe they need which may explain their toxicity and the depression and stress statistics in the HSE report. Trying to assert control through fear.

4m people resigned in the US earlier this year. Called The Great Resignation as people clearly thought otherwise and took matters into their own hands and walked away from it.

And even in that control employers do appear to have, many have proven time and again, they abuse it, waste it and it’s misdirected away from what really matters. Installing spyware. Ordering people back to the office. Use of language that appears to imply people from home have NOT been working (back to work rhetoric). Apart from obvious furlough situations, many people have been working. Just remotely.

This is why your people, your employees, matter and they are not “a problem”.

And back to the publication on employee activism.

The opening to the Executive Summary is hard-hitting:

Employee activism is not only here to stay, it is expected to become a defining feature of the workplace. Leaders and organizations are unlikely to be able to continue to avoid or superficially engage with contentious social and environmental issues. Genuine engagement however requires a fundamental change to the previously unchallenged organizational hierarchy and power structures. It demands dialogic skills which many employees, managers and leaders lack.

And of course, we have to look at people and their values being compromised, suppressed, squashed and seriously challenged that causes your activism. They’re not the problem. Your system is.

And that this activism is likely to be shared. There will be others feeling as you do. So your activism manifests with others for form activists.

And so the tug-of-war, stand-off, battle-lines are about employer control and employee activism.

And this is ALL unnecessary.

If employers don’t try to control but invite activism of another sort — influence and insight to shape decisions that are in everyone’s interest in some shape or form — we won’t need battlelines. We have some differences but we can normally work through compromise without adversarial stand-offs.

So I don’t want to see retrograde articles and consultancy offers like this being written, published and supported. That’s not to suppress different views, it’s because it’s pouring lighter fuel on an already smouldering debate that is unnecessary.

We’ve all developed new ways to live and work. We thought 2021 was the chance to see an end to restrained ways of living. Instead, we’re now creating battles we don’t need to fight amongst ourselves.

That’s why the article I mentioned was not just woefully out of touch, it was incendiary. A pyromaniacal piece of divisive turns of phrase. I couldn’t even see any good intent to it.

I think some folks need to upgrade their thinking to 2021.

The people you call your employees are the people participating in your business success. If you let them do so. So stop trying to control and blame them for having unreasonable demands and create systems and ways of working that help them be their best for you and those your business exists to serve.

Once you’ve upgraded, I think we need a reboot on this kind of retrograde attitude and approach as you’d do for your failing Windows PC. Ctrl+Alt+Del

So control your urges to dominate people who are your colleagues, and instead, try and control the factors that are challenging your entire business operation, together.

Apply alternatives to control through the simpler act of inclusive co-creation.

And delete the thoughts you might have that people are problems and they’re not trustworthy. Because it's those people that ARE your business.

CEO PTHR |2x TEDx speaker | Author: Transformational HR + The Energized Workplace | HR Most Influential Thinker 2017-2019 | Soulboy + Northampton Town fan