Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Maybe they should send a disgruntled postal worker to North Waziristan

I'm sure we'll hear about this from Jay Leno, but it really isn't funny. Another postal worker has shot up a mail handling facility, killing six and then herself. That the perpetrator was female is an oddity, but are postal employees really more likely to do this than other workers?

I don't know of any studies that would answer that question, but Mark Gorkin, the self-styled Stress Doc (he's a social worker, not an MD*), has a pretty reasonable sounding analysis of this sort of catastrophic workplace violence. Postal workers are constantly watched; constantly driven to high levels of productivity at repetitive, boring tasks; required to work overtime and on overnight shifts; and they are relatively well-paid for blue collar jobs requiring little education, but they don't have opportunities for well-paying jobs elsewhere. That means that getting fired or laid off can be a disaster for postal workers, while conflicts with supervisors and overall distrust and alienation from management are common. Furthermore, the postal service employs many ex-military personnel and people who are somewhat socially marginalized, which means many have a familiarity with guns and violence.

I'm not an expert on this subject and I'm not in a position to endorse or criticize Gorkin, but what I do want to say is that this sort of incident appears to be, at least in some cases, part of the price we pay for the commodification of work. For many people in industrial societies, work is just something they exchange for money. The work itself is merely unpleasant, dehumanizing, meaningless. And to management, the workers are just resources to be maintained in usable condition only to the extent that the investment is worth it. Low-skilled, easily replaced workers merit little consideration.

Now, I'm not looking back to a golden age -- I'm sure it was no fun being a peasant either. I'm also not saying that slaughtering one's co-workers is an appropriate response to the alienation of labor. The people who do this are as responsible for their own actions as anyone else. However, these sorts of incidents are signals that something is very wrong in the lives of many workers. I don't have a glib proposal for reforming the economy and culture so that more people have intrinsically rewarding work, more autonomy and more security, but I do say that we really need to pay attention to the problem. The generally accepted definition of health is that it is not merely a physical state, but one of social and emotional well-being. No matter how wealthy we are (and we are getting less so here in the U.S., about which more anon), material resources alone do not suffice.

*I'm not a real doctor either, I'm a doctor of philosophy.

No comments: