The Toll of Ever Greater “Efficiency”

Over the years, I have worked for myself as a barrister from chambers; as a lawyer employed by a large organization, as well as a partner in a  law firm. I have experienced the relative freedom of being self-employed – being able to take a holiday & erratic cash flow can be real issues however-  as well as the crushing feeling of accounting for each 6 minute unit of one’s working life as an employee.

The organization that once employed me used a code for time recording: the number “12” was for “personal time.”  This I used when going to the toilet, which tickled me, because it was a  combination  of a “number one” and a “number two.”

Totting up the hours each week in the hope of impressing the boss and getting up that slippery pole, made me feel how cheap I was parting with my weeks on this earth and that there must be more satisfying ways forward!

Hence I set up my own law firm with a colleague, but the drive over the years became the same: to increase turnover, reduce outgoings and become more efficient. One enjoys the creativity but only to discover the irony that you are striving towards something reminiscent of what you never liked. As the firm grows, of course, those imperatives become increasingly apparent.

For many that are not so fortunate to be able to choose a different path, I worry at the changes that some employers make to work practices or to workload on the altar of achieving greater “efficiency.” Professions where cash might be short, such as teachers or medical staff, seem to be stretched to do yet more, such that you can witness people buckle with the pressure and stress being loaded onto them. At one UK school in the Midlands I visited last year (which was undergoing significant change & “harmonisation” ) a number of the teachers simply looked ill. There was palpable unhappiness, but the powers at be, seemed able to find replacements, & sometimes for less money.

But it seems to be a not infrequent event when you speak to people: “I’ve had to take on an additional role but my pay’s still the same. I’m not sure when I’m going to find the time to do it all.”

And then there’s email: a blessing and also a curse. How did we all cope before it became commonplace? But what a nightmare. As a lawyer, opposing parties expect a response, if not within a few minutes, certainly within a few hours. In multi-party cases, if you have been absent from your computer, you find there are 20 odd emails as people have engaged in frantic discussion of the issue at hand; some responding to different emails in  the chain.

On a recent case, I was scanned an application from another party, only to find an email arrive before I could even finish reading it, where the Judge had abridged time and placed the matter in Court the next day. My own mutterings of natural justice, and the application was not that urgent anyway, unfortunately didn’t illicit a similarly prompt response despite the merit to my complaint.

But when you cease work at the end of a busy day, or when you wake up, can you afford not to check your emails? What happens if your opponent has tried to take a procedural advantage when you’ve clocked off? Perhaps it matters more when it’s your own business, but the truth is its difficult not to check in any event.

The answer should be that we all have to switch-off and relax when we leave work but email often means that we take our work home with us, and even away on holiday. In years to come, no doubt, there will be a backlash to the way many of us lead our lives, forever hooked up to work and emails, as the stress and pressure makes its presence known through illness and contributes to poor communication with our own families, who get less of a look-in. “You are always on your phone”- sound familiar?

It is incumbent on employers, therefore, to insist that employees look after themselves &, where possible, avoid the tyranny that work emails can have when they have ostensibly finished work. I also think that employers should be reminded that they have a responsibility for the welfare of their staff. Employees can’t be stretched and stretched to do ever more work without eventually snapping.