Worker Alienation in the Office

This paper was written for SOC 103 How Societies Work at Ryerson University and received a grade of 100%.

This is a very good essay, exceptional for a first-year level class. – Dr. Rebecca Lock
For many, work forms a substantial part of their core identity and certain traits and characteristics of the job an individual does often become ascribed to that individual. The concept of alienated labour is important because it identifies a division between work that adds to an individual’s life and well-being and work that erodes it. The purpose of this paper is to explore how Marx’s theory of worker alienation applies to the modern office environment. This paper argues that alienation has evolved from a phenomenon of the early capitalist factory floor to one of the white-collar office. This paper discusses the following sub-issues: 1) the relationship of technology to alienation, 2) the affect of precariousness and flexibilization on the worker’s experience of alienation, and 3) how women are at greater risk of being alienated from their work. Finally, because the financial burden of alienated labour is not insignificant for employers, this paper also examines how organizations can mitigate or avoid alienation at the staff level.
Worker alienation is complicated, and its terms are often contested by social scientists. The concept was studied extensively until the 1990s, when it went “out of fashion” (Tummers, Bekkers, Thiel, & Seijn, 2015, p. 611). It is characterized by the lack of power to direct one’s work, to maintain satisfactory work relationships, and to create a self-definition rather than have it imposed (Rogers, 1995, p. 142). In the 19th century, Karl Marx showed that the dehumanization and estrangement of workers, their alienation, was a consequence of the structure of exploitation in capitalist industry (Kalekin-Fishman and Langman, 2015, p. 917). Marx also condemned the loss of creative activity in jobs, which caused people to become little more than simple machines (Haddad, 2017, p. 164). In 1951, American sociologist, C. Wright Mills argued that white-collar work was coming to resemble the debilitating aspects of blue-collar work (Haddad, 2017). Since that time, the nature of white-collar work has changed dramatically. Although Marx first theorized it as a consequence of wage labour, alienation appears to have migrated from the factory floor to the office (Archibald, 2009, p. 152). Employees who experience work alienation are more likely to reduce their work effort and have greater intention to leave (Tummers et al., 2015, p. 610). A conceptualization of worker alienation that considers both individual psychological and emotional conditions and broader structural factors of capitalist production is valuable as a framework to analyse labour in the white-collar office environment.
When individuals do work that makes them feel powerless and does not contribute to their aspirations, they become alienated from the fulfillment that meaningful labour can provide. Work defines who people are, how their communities view them, and what opportunities and resources they possess (Haddad, 2017). While Marx considered objective work alienation, contemporary scholars have pivoted toward the study of subjective work alienation, that is, alienation as the worker perceives it (Tummers et al., 2015, p. 599). Two key contributing factors in subjective alienation are powerlessness and meaninglessness (Tummers et al., 2015, p. 600). Powerlessness is the perceived lack of freedom and control on the job whereas meaninglessness occurs when a person cannot understand the events in which he or she is involved (Tummers et al., 2015, p. 600). The feeling of meaninglessness arises when workers are not able to understand the complex system of goals in the organization and its relationship to their own work (Tummers et al., 2015, p. 600). An example of this occurs in clerical work which has become degraded in much the same way as factory work through the separation of conception and execution (Rogers, 1995, p. 145). Workers in a clerical environment experience lack of control over the work, lack of control over the conditions of work, and lack of understanding of the purpose of the work (Rogers, 1995, p. 145) which ultimately leads to the powerlessness and meaninglessness associated with alienation. This situation is exacerbated for temporary clerical workers, who are rarely given enough information to understand the purpose of their tasks and who are deprived of even the most limited realization of the finished product of their work (Rogers, 1995, p. 146). Powerlessness and meaninglessness are negatively related to both work effort and performance (Tummers et al., 2015, p. 601), and when employees feel that their work has no autonomy and no meaning, they become less willing to invest their efforts into it (Tummers, 2015, p. 602). It may, therefore, seem obvious that workers should seek meaningful work that they can have autonomy over, however, the changing organization of work must also factor in to any analysis of worker alienation.
Increasing job insecurity and flexibilization of the office environment has eroded meaningful work and contributed to a culture of alienation in white-collar work. Archibald (2009) contends that cyclical and long-term economic crises and continued downsizing have resulted in levels of unemployment, under-employment, and job insecurity that has sometimes rivaled those of the Great Depression (p. 151). In such a climate, management can treat labour as a variable cost while other costs are fixed revealing a managerial bias that obfuscates the realities of those not in the position to manage or control their work (Rogers, 1995, p. 139). Haddad (2017) notes that the increasingly precarious status of many jobs in the American economy is a trend that is shared with other developed nations (p. 175). Indeed, in Canada there have been large increases in those who are involuntarily self-employed, employed only part-time, employed full-time but at poverty-level wages, or unemployed but too alienated to continue to look for work (Archibald, 2009, p.167). Increasing precariousness in employment itself has been coined “precarity,” and the category of people who suffer from it have become known as the “precretariat,” an update on Marx’s “reserve army of labour” (Haddad, 2017, p. 176). The precarious nature of the employment landscape today has had a significant negative influence employee engagement.
Another way in which the organization of work is becoming more alienating to workers is the “flexibilization” of labour. Flexible strategies range from increasing the range of workers functions, to rotating jobs, and to decreasing employer obligation through the use of temporary and contract workers (Rogers, 1995, p. 137). The term “contingent economy” covers such diverse work arrangements as part-time employment, temporary employment, employee leasing, and job sharing (Rogers, 1995, p. 138). As of 1995, the growth in this sector had outpaced overall employment growth, demonstrating that the phenomenon is less cyclical than in the past and more incorporated into usual business strategies and was predicted to continue growing (Rogers, 1995, p. 139). But for whom are these arrangements flexible? The worker here is conceptualized as a work input and is managed in much the same way as inventory or machines (Rogers, 1995, p. 139). Furthermore, contingent workers are paid less, have fewer health and retirement benefits, have little or no long-term security, have a more difficult time qualifying for unemployment and workers’ compensation, and often “slip through the cracks” with respect to labour legislation (Rogers, 1995, p. 140). The phenomenon is employer-driven rather than worker-driven, and as a result, contingent workers experience uncertainty regarding the duration or regularity of their work and are unlikely to receive on-the-job training or to be considered for promotional opportunities (Rogers, 1995, p. 140). Temporary employment has become “business as usual” suggesting that the change in temporary employment to a noncyclical phenomenon means that employers are avoiding long-term commitments, wage growth, fringe benefits, and occupational safety and health protections (Rogers, 1995, p. 141). It is not surprising then that the result of these trends is a labour force that feels more insecure, powerless, and alienated.
Since the 1970s, rapid advances in digital technology combined with the development of the internet have fundamentally altered the operation of offices. As such, researchers now study alienation in relation to uses of digital technologies and new forms of exploitation in work (Kalekin-Fishman and Langman, 2015, p. 916). Technology has unfolded in a sequence: first craft technology, then power-machine technology, assembly-line technology, and continuous process automation (Hodson, 1996, p. 720). Notably, the microprocessor revolution of the 1970s and 1980s had far-reaching effects across a variety of industries (Hodson, 1996, p. 721). Scholars in the Marxist tradition have argued that technology worsens working conditions by deskilling tasks and fragmenting work and by enhancing management control (Haddad, 2017, p. 163). Technology is further argued to have significant impacts on job satisfaction (Haddad, 2017). Although historical evidence suggests that certain types of technology, such as those used in the skilled trades, give workers increased control over their labour process (Haddad, 2017, p. 171), the same does not hold true for office workers. In fact, scholars have faulted new technology for cutting the motivation of employees and taking away many of their skills (Haddad, 2017, p. 177). Set against the backdrop of a non-stop global economy, the incorporation of technology into the office has created high-pressure workplaces and work intensification, constant organizational change, and dependence on information technology (Archibald, 2009, p. 154-155). Work intensification most directly affects knowledge workers who drive the post-industrial economy (Archibald, 2009, p. 155). In addition, computerization has given management more opportunities to pressure, monitor, and discipline workers, both in the workplace and often while they are at home (Archibald, 2009, 164). Work is essential to a satisfactory life, but new technologies can contribute to the exploitation of white-collar workers, thereby increasing the odds of their alienation.
Women and racialized minorities are the demographic most susceptible to alienation in the workplace. Changes in work organization often results in a polarization of skill, security, and autonomy and this polarization is inflected by race, class, and gender (Rogers, 1995, p. 137). Archibald (2009) notes that in contrast to high-skilled, high-waged private financial and public service industries whose upper echelons are made up mostly of men, there are low-skilled and low-waged “servant” industries populated mostly by women (p. 165). Moreover, various researchers have demonstrated the overrepresentation of women and people of colour in various sectors of the contingent economy (Rogers, 1995, p. 141). The low status of the temporary clerical worker and the gender of the worker engenders nonperson treatment, that is, someone who is present during a performance, and may actually be part of the team, but who is considered not there by both the performers and the audience (Rogers, 1995, p. 151). In addition, temporary workers feel the need to perform emotional labour ranging from putting on a happy face, to tolerating abusive work situations, taking the blame for mistakes they did not make, and taking abusive comments without responding (Rogers, 1995, p. 153). Arguably, emotional labour is not limited to temporaries but is also performed by women employed in full-time clerical work. Emotional labour leads to alienation from self as a result of aspects of their identity being imposed from the outside, and which are often conflict with the worker’s ideas about who she is (Rogers, 1995, p. 154). Because women disproportionately work in sectors that are organized as contingent and which reproduce and reinforce marginality, alienation is disproportionately experienced by women.
It is in the interests of employers to curb worker alienation whenever possible. When employees leave their job, the organization can incur substantial costs including the finances for recruiting a new employee and the loss of the employee’s tacit knowledge (Tummers et al., 2015, p. 602). The task of management, therefore, is to organize conditions and methods of operation so that people can achieve their own goals by directing their own efforts towards the organization’s objectives – if it does otherwise, employees will feel powerless which increases their intention to leave (Tummers et al., 2015, p. 602). Overcoming alienated labour could also be accomplished through the realization of dignity (Kalekin-Fishman and Langman, 2015, p. 927). Dignity is more than self-esteem; it is a set of circumstances which enable self-esteem, pride, and self-realization for everyone and is attained when people have recognition of their humanity, self-determination, and the capacity to reclaim their “species being” (Kalekin-Fishman and Langman, 2015, p. 927). Hodson (1996) writes that there are four important aspects of task-related experiences: job satisfaction, pride (the importance workers attach to pride in task completion), possession of insider knowledge (the knowledge and skills that workers possess that can only be gained through long periods of on-the-job learning), and effort bargain (the implicit bargain between workers and managers about how much effort workers are expected to exert (p. 723-724)). Moreover, solidarity, the willingness of workers to defend each other in the face of assaults from management can also mitigate feelings of alienation that arise from performing meaningless work (Hodson, 1996, p. 724). When white-collar workplaces implement strategies that tap into these positive experiences to empower and engage their employees, they will reduce the impact of worker alienation on their bottom-line.
Alienation has evolved from a phenomenon of the early capitalist factory to one of the white-collar office. Yet despite the pressures exerted by technology and the precarious and increasingly flexible job market, when workers feel that their work contributes to their being they are less likely to reduce their effort or leave the organization. Since work is often at the core of identity, organizations would do well to turn their attention to reviving the concept of alienation. After all, employers benefit when employees want to “go the extra mile” and suffer when alienated workers create a costly drag on business.
Archibald, W. P. (2009). Marx, globalization and alienation: Received and underappreciated wisdoms. Critical Sociology, 35(2), 151-174.
Haddad, A. T., & Senter, R. (2017;2016;). The relationship of technology to workers’ alienation. Sociological Focus, 50(2), 159-24. doi:10.1080/00380237.2017.1251755
Kalekin-Fishman, D., & Langman, L. (2015). Alienation: The critique that refuses to disappear. Current Sociology, 63(6), 916-933. doi:10.1177/0011392115591612
Rogers, J. K. (1995). Just a temp: Experience and structure of alienation in temporary clerical employment. Work and Occupations, 22(2), 137-166. doi:10.1177/0730888495022002002
Tummers, L., Bekkers, V., Thiel, S. v., & Steijn, B. (2015;2014;). The effects of work alienation and policy alienation on behavior of public employees. Administration & Society, 47(5), 596-617. doi:10.1177/0095399714555748
Back to Top