Corporate nudging and the graveyard shift: would a stint in a coffin inspire you to work harder?

The emergence of Nudge theory in the 2000s – generally described as a system for change/societal-management, has increasingly been used by governments to understand and alter group behaviour – reinforces the principle that governance must be driven by needs of the people being governed, not by the governing authority.

Nudge theory has found its way into the business management and corporate culture. Although Nudge was initially developed as a concept by behavioural economists, its stated aim was the improvement of society, theorists claimed it was not designed as a mechanism for commercial exploitation, or government manipulation. However, there are no safeguards in place to prevent such exploitation and manipulation in the application of Nudge theories.  

Imagine the scene. You knew office morale had been low for a while, but you never thought senior management would go to quite such lengths to try and get everyone enthusiastic about their jobs again.

You and your co-workers file slowly into the meeting room and an array of perfectly aligned coffins comes into view. As your team development manager smiles and asks you to climb into a coffin – after all, it has your name on it – you are met by a photograph of yourself taken years ago when you still were optimistic about the future: “Now hug the image of yourself” is the final instruction before the coffin’s lid is closed.

No, this is not some bizarre scene from a Philip K Dick novel but an actual motivation exercise reported to have occurred in South Korea.

Faced with high stress levels and low productivity in corporate Korea, some employers have upped the ante, trying to get employees to embrace life at work rather than seek ever more desperate forms of escape. Firms send staff to the Hyowon Healing Centre, where its president explains the rationale behind the coffin ritual: “Our company has always encouraged employees to change their old ways of thinking, but it was hard to bring about any real difference … I thought going inside a coffin would be such a shocking experience it would completely reset their minds for a completely fresh start in their attitudes.”

To get employees in the mood they are shown videos of people overcoming debilitating conditions including cancer. As one employee robotically says as he emerges from a coffin: “I’ve realised I’ve made lots of mistakes. I hope to be more passionate in all the work I do, and spend more time with my family.”

What on earth is going on here? Actually, this extreme motivational technique is symptomatic of how work has changed over the last 20 years. What some call 24/7 capitalism has seen work overtake all other social activities to become the centre of society.

This is not only down to mobile technology, as some have argued, since there is nothing inherent in a smartphone that makes us work 24/7. No, the compulsion to check email and always be “poised to work” stems from the expectation that if you are not ready for that call from the boss then you are somehow deficient, disposable and lacking important qualities. No wonder a survey found 80% of employers find it perfectly appropriate to contact workers outside of business hours.

This weird “24/7 perpetual worker” was always the ideal goal of neoliberal economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Gary Becker. Because homo economicus is considered a superior being, we are constantly encouraged to transform ourselves into tradeable “human capital” and “permanent enterprises” that never switch off in case we miss that crucial deal.

We would expect unions and anti-work lobbyist to be at the forefront of resisting this trend. And they are. But large corporations are also trying to deal with the fallout, recognising the all-too human limits of this extreme ethos. Having unleashed 24/7 capitalism – and the ideal-worker to go with it – some businesses are frantically trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

Some firms in Europe and the US, for example, now deactivate their employees’ email after business hours because they realise that the obsessive-compulsive behaviour it inspires is bad for the worker and bad for business.

A Barclays’ banker was fired after it was leaked he declared to summer interns: “I recommend bringing a pillow to the office (yoga mat works as well). It makes sleeping under your desk a lot more comfortable, in the very likely scenario that you have to do that.” In light of the tragic case of Moritz Erhardt, the intern who died of an epileptic seizure after working nonstop for 72 hours, the comment was deemed very bad taste.

No wonder South Korean employers are taking extreme measures to put work back into perspective: actually ordering workers into a coffin and reminding them that life isn’t all that bad … death is worse.

The intertwined relationship between work and dying is the dark-side of the neoliberal fantasy and ‘ideal’ worker, which probably can’t be reversed so easily. When our society is reconfigured singly around our job or search for one, then work becomes more than something we do among other things: it becomes who we are. Thus escaping our job when things go wrong becomes exceedingly difficult. For how do you escape yourself?

It seems that neoliberal capitalism wants its cake, and to eat it too: a life of nonstop work and normal, balanced individuals. But something has to give.

Indeed, we can imagine the “coffin exercise” backfiring, an employee refusing to ever return to the pettiness of office life after realising that her existence must add up to more than merely sending emails all day. Inspired by neoliberal capitalism’s own contradictions, perhaps we are on the cusp of a new workers’ movement and the coffin exercise is not so morbidly wacky after all.

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You can read the original article here.

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