COLUMN ONE : Assembly Line Stress in Offices : Computers have transformed the nature of work, leading to anxiety and physical pain. Researchers are calling on business to rethink basic automation decisions of the past decade.


Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard University business professor, once asked a group of office clerks whose jobs had recently been computerized to draw pictures of themselves at work.

The clerks variously portrayed themselves as chained to desks, clothed in prison stripes, trapped by walls, deprived of sunlight and food, wearing blinders, surrounded by bottles of aspirin, bleary-eyed with fatigue and frowning.

The stark, solitary stick figures spoke vividly about changes that computerization is making in the office--changes that represent a fundamental and potentially harmful shift in the nature of work.

Computerization without proper social and psychological safeguards is subjecting millions of office employees to a harsher, more isolated and more dangerous workplace, a growing number of researchers maintain.

Too often, clerical-level workers are forced to spend too much time glued to computer screens performing rote activities, or required to work at a pace dictated or monitored by a computer, experts say. As a result, they lose "social support"--normal office chatter and physical movement--and a sense of control over their job.

Those feelings and experiences may seem ephemeral, but psychologists regard them as a crucial buffer against stress-related illnesses such as anxiety and depression. They can often spell the difference between a deadening job and a bearable one.

Business and government are being called upon to rethink basic automation decisions of the past decade. Researchers believe that employers should relinquish their sole authority to decide how work is organized. They believe short-term productivity should be sacrificed in favor of employees' long-term health.

"If we have an enlightened future, the final solution to all this will be (a maximum of) four hours a day at a VDT (video display terminal)," says Louis Slesin, editor of VDT News, a computer-safety publication. Mentally and physically, "eight hours is simply more than anybody can stand."

Such thinking amounts to the most serious reevaluation of the relationship between people and machines since the Industrial Revolution. It demands, in effect, that office workers be protected against the most enticing quality of the computer--its ability to drastically speed up the number of transactions a worker can perform.

"It's the question of whether the computer is an appendage of the person or the person is an appendage of the computer," said Harley Shaiken, professor of work and technology at UC San Diego.

Finding a way to reduce the damage of computerized office work "is going to be a harder fix than asbestos," said Dr. Linda Morse, a San Jose occupational-medicine specialist who runs the nation's first institute devoted to repetitive-strain illness--problems that result from making the same muscle movements hundreds or thousands of times a day. "Asbestos seems like a big nightmare problem, but you either take it out or encapsulate it. Here you're talking about how work is organized."

The debate over how machines should be used to measure work and make it more efficient has been raging since the turn of the century. When contemporary critics allude to efficiency run amok, they still use an obscure buzzword: "Taylorism," a reference to Frederick Taylor, the dean of "scientific management," who introduced a system of time-and-motion study in the early 1900s.

The role that computers have played in this time line has yet to receive deep public attention. Since the late 1970s, computers have been installed too quickly in offices to pin down their social, medical or even business impact. Several studies suggest that the most vaunted promise of computers--higher office productivity--has never been fulfilled.

The proportion of Americans who use computers at work shot from 24% of the work force in 1984 to 37% in 1989.

Jobs Redesigned

An estimated 50 million Americans work on computers, and millions more work in systems paced or propelled by computers. They range far beyond offices. More than a third of male workers in manufacturing jobs use computers. Warehousemen are often required to meet computerized standards for each pallet-loading task they perform.

Conventional wisdom holds that the computer revolution has been a liberating experience for workers. Millions of professional-level workers ranging from engineers to architects to writers to accountants swear to it. The speed and power of the computer allows them to work more quickly, more creatively and with more flexibility--as easily from home or a hotel room as the office.

However, for an even larger number of everyday office workers--many of them women working as clerks or bookkeepers in places such as insurance companies, hospitals, phone companies and airline reservation systems--the opposite often appears true.

When many offices introduced computerized systems, the environment turned grim.

Sometimes the cause was job redesign. To increase efficiency, and to gather a greater amount of data on each step of a transaction, some companies broke jobs into simpler, less challenging tasks requiring less decision making. Elements of blue-collar assembly line work crept into white-collar clerical positions.

Rani Lueder, president of an Encino-based office safety consulting company, recalled a Canadian company that hired her to study repetitive-strain illnesses that occurred after the introduction of VDTs. Lueder said she believed the illnesses were occurring not simply because workers were using terminals, but because their jobs had been "de-skilled" so that they performed a less creative function.

"Before, they had typed an entire form, from a handwritten document," she said. "With computers, each person was responsible for only one particular line in each form. Plus, a computer kept track (of their productivity). But the company didn't want to change the system. All I could do was recommend new chairs (to improve posture), and that was such a small piece of the problem."

Technology also has changed the psychological texture of office jobs in subtle but profound ways: Human interaction with co-workers and supervisors is replaced by interaction with machines, and evaluation by them. Personal skills of responding to people are often replaced by technical skills of manipulating a machine. Workers become more likely to exchange information with one another through "electronic mail." A benign change in office design--partitions, intended to give each worker privacy with the computer--means former desk mates see far less of each other.

Rachel Viramontes, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident, said those kinds of changes made work less rewarding in the billing office of a San Pedro hospital, from which she recently resigned after nearly 30 years.

"Before computers, you knew how everything functioned. You knew people in all areas. You knew what everybody did. Over the years it became less and less. Each department got a data-processing center. You no longer knew who worked on the second floor.

"Before, we all did everything--answered phones, took messages. We had the feeling we were part of a team. There was a lot of cross-training. I think now everything's become real segmented. Each department--X-ray, surgery--became separate. Nobody had a concept of the total (hospital) bill, and the person at the end with the final bill had no idea how the information got there."

Some researchers believe that the first mass consequence of computerization is the well-reported upsurge of repetitive-strain illnesses. Nearly 290,000 cases were reported to the Labor Department in 1989, up sevenfold since 1981.

Linda Rudolph, acting chief of California's occupational health program, said a recent survey suggested that the actual frequency of carpal tunnel syndrome--a type of repetitive-strain hand disorder common in VDT users and supermarket checkers--is 50 times greater than the number reported to state officials.

An even larger, yet-to-be-measured consequence of mass computerization, researchers predict, is a huge wave of emotional illness linked to the way computer work is organized.

"The same things that cause repetitive-motion injuries cause (emotional) stress injuries," said Charley Richardson, director of the University of Lowell's technology and work program in Massachusetts. "People get put in boxes, can't move around, can't use their skills. It's not good for them."

He offered an example.

"I used to have a job as a machine operator. Unskilled. In my sleep I can still do those 12 moves with the machine that I had to do. The way I was counted was that at end of the day, they'd ask how many (objects) did you make. I had a little counter on the machine. I said I made 1,500. Now, whether I made those 1,500 in the first two hours, or the last two, or spread the work throughout the day was not discussed. As long as I looked busy, I could pace myself.

"But now with computers, they're saying, 'How many did you make in the last five minutes?' There is no ability for an individual to pace the day according to their own strengths, weaknesses, needs. It's like rubbing against sandpaper."

In response to such concerns, the federal government last fall made its first attempt to suggest ways that businesses should control these "psychosocial" factors.

The non-binding recommendations, made by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, said employers should:

* Make sure jobs "provide opportunities for personal interaction, both for purposes of emotional support and for actual help as needed in accomplishing assigned tasks."

* Give workers increased control over the pace of their work.

* Make sure work schedules are "compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job."

* Make each job's duties broad enough "to provide meaning, stimulation and an opportunity to use skills," possibly by rotating a person between two or more jobs.

In the realm of government workplace policy--and the policies of most businesses--these are unprecedented notions. They go far beyond the boundaries of San Francisco's VDT ordinance, passed in 1990 to force businesses to provide VDT workers with adjustable chairs, tables and other furniture and to require periodic breaks.

San Francisco's ordinance is the first local, state or federal law governing VDT work, and a rare example of government intrusion into the ways American business uses technology. In contrast, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Australia have imposed various standards regulating computer work. The controls limit the daily number of hours worked on a VDT and in some cases require worker consultation when work is reorganized. The regulations reflect the strong influence of those countries' labor unions, which often view automation as a means of increasing control over workers, rather than a neutral tool.

Stressful Trends

Steven Sauter, who heads NIOSH's motivation and stress research section, said the changes in work wrought by computers "were not appreciated early on, except by the workers themselves. Only now are we seeing wholesale concerns."

Many workers find it difficult to express their feelings about these changes. For one thing, the changes are often hard to separate from other stressful trends, such as corporate "downsizing" and company demands for higher productivity. For another, researchers note, humans adapt relatively quickly to new work environments and forget what qualities have been lost.

Yet many workplaces are rife with examples of how technology intended to make life easier has made it more difficult.

* There's Harriette Ternipsede, an airline reservations clerk in Chicago, whose calls are directed and monitored by a computer, which periodically prints out each worker's productivity. She is one of the estimated 6 million to 10 million Americans who have their keystroke-by-keystroke or word-by-word performance monitored.

"The girl who sits next to me at work is one of my good friends. I say 'good morning' to her and I say 'good night' to her. There's no time to talk in between unless we put a call on hold and sneak it. That's the atmosphere," Ternipsede said. "We have two breaks a day and one lunch. Most people do not even go to the bathroom other than on their break and lunch."

A Times reporter last year asked Ternipsede how often she stood up simply to stretch. Never, she said. That night she grew angry at the thought. The next day, as a gesture of defiance, she and several co-workers began to stand up at their desks for several minutes during the day.

* There's Sharon Danann, an industrial hygienist who recalls walking through New England telephone company offices during a previous job as a safety inspector and hearing workers exclaim: "You mean there are actually jobs that exist where people move around?"

* There's Linda H., who said she quit working for a large manufacturing company in Minnesota because she hated weekly group meetings where managers would compare individual workers' keystroke rates. "It becomes like everybody is trying to outdo the other. You'd look at the person with really high keystrokes and you'd say, 'Now I have to be like so-and-so and speed up.' "

* There's technology expert Richardson, who experienced the computer's impact firsthand while he was working as a shipfitter from 1976 to 1985.

"When I went into the shipyard, they used to basically give me a section of floor, a pile of steel and a bunch of blueprints and say, 'Build this section of the ship.' By the time I left 10 years later I'd get a computer-generated packet that had just the prints for that section of the ship and had step-by-step instructions. Because of what I'd learned, I could build an entire ship. But the people coming up underneath me were not getting that broad range of skills. They were being slotted into more structured jobs, doing one thing, over and over," Richardson said.

* There's the anonymous word processing operator who called the National Assn. of Working Women, a Cleveland-based organization devoted to issues affecting female office workers, to report that she had been disciplined for singing while she punched data into her video display terminal.

Most businesses have yet to address, or even acknowledge, the relationship between computerization and stress-related illnesses.

"I'm not sure our members see a connection," said Dennis McIntosh, executive director of the Center for Office Technology, a coalition of companies that acts as an information clearinghouse. "If we could get companies to just recognize ergonomics as a word, we'd be accomplishing something." Ergonomics is the science of making sure that furniture and tools fit the individual worker properly.

Paul Strassmann, a former Xerox Corp. executive who oversees information management for the Department of Defense, said he believes an increasing number of companies are becoming more sophisticated about human variables.

However, "what the companies have to learn is to give greater autonomy and better opportunity to people to really use the technology," Strassmann said. "Diminish the checking role and the dictating. Where management is dictatorial and hierarchical, the computer system will reflect management. When I look at a computer system, there are certain telltale signs of this: What portion of information technology is being spent to support the internal bureaucracy, as opposed to serving customers?"

Poorly run companies that use computers to reinforce existing management controls over workers "are mechanizing the obsolete management," Strassmann said. In contrast, when smart companies computerize, they redesign management to give workers more decision-making power.

Unlike a strained tendon or shoulder, the emotional consequences of mechanized work are not easily quantified. There are no recognized medical studies of the long-term consequences of working in mechanized offices.

There are, however, dozens of shorter-term studies which show that job stress and job satisfaction are directly affected by psychosocial variables, such as the amount of social support, repetitious work and decision-making control that a job includes.

A study released last month by Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. on employee burnout said that workers who have the least control over the way they do their jobs are the most likely to be burnout victims. Such workers cited lack of personal control as the second most important stress factor, the first being sharp cuts in employee benefits.

Psychological factors apparently are as likely to cause repetitive-strain illness as poor ergonomics.

A study last year by Dr. Michael Smith, a former National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health official who heads the industrial engineering department at the University of Wisconsin, found that telephone operators whose performance was electronically monitored were more likely to develop repetitive-strain injuries than similar workers who were not monitored.

Turn-of-the-century efficiency expert Taylor believed that management should control the planning of each worker's function to increase efficiency and to allow machines to complement that sequence, ultimately improving productivity and removing more strenuous tasks from workers' hands. He advocated studying each job by breaking it down into small components, timing them and setting standards.

As a result, productivity was often raised enormously. But some critics, particularly American labor unions, contended that Taylorism was often corrupted, that mangement fragmented jobs to take control away from individual workers and set increasingly higher production standards, sometimes making jobs simultaneously harder and less meaningful.

Repeating Mistakes

In the 1960s, management journals began to emphasize the need to apply scientific management to increase clerical productivity. The rise of the personal computer in the late 1970s led to a technology explosion. But the speed with which computer systems were installed in offices later gave rise to misgivings.

It also led to a historical irony: Office managers, critics suggested, were not only making many of the same mistakes that early production managers had made on the assembly line, but making them at the same time that manufacturers were turning toward a Japanese-like collaborative "team" model, which attempted to correct the isolated, rote nature of assembly line work.

The Census Bureau's recent study of computer use at work between 1984 and 1989 found huge increases in technical and administrative support staffs, particularly among women. While the number of women in these jobs increased only about 10%, to 22 million, the number using computers increased 57%, from 8 million to 12.6 million.

The Labor Department, which charts business productivity, does not break down office work into a separate category. But Stephen S. Roach, senior economist with Morgan Stanley & Co. in New York, recently used federal statistics to estimate that productivity of office workers has dropped by 7% since 1973, in contrast to a 51% increase in factory productivity.

Roach said American office management became "addicted" to technology and--unlike the industrial sector--never made productivity gains because it did not sufficiently cut labor costs to compensate for huge expenditures on technology.

"What is disturbing," Roach said, "is that here we sit at the beginning of a new decade, after an explosive decade of acquisition of information technology, and white-collar workers have little to show from it in the aggregate."

Computer Use Increasing

The number of workers who use computers has risen dramatically in the last few years. In 1984, for example, about 9.4 million managerial and professional workers used computers--or 39% of all managers and professionals nationwide. In 1989, the total had jumped to nearly 17 million--more than 56% of that workforce.

1984 1989 Occupation Total Percent of Total Percent of (Millions) Work Force (Millions) Work Force Managerial, professional 9.418 39.0% 16.696 56.2% Technical, sales, 11.728 38.7% 18.461 55.1% administrative support Service .774 6.2% 1.368 10.2% Precision production, 1.289 10.3% 2.016 15.3% craft, repair Operators, laborers .877 5.5% 1.563 9.5%

SOURCE: Census Bureau

Computerization in the Office

A group of office clerks was asked to draw pictures to show the way that installation of computers had changed their jobs. One clerk produced the following before-and-after sketches: Before


Commented this clerk, describing her new work environment:

"No talking, no looking, no walking. I have a cork in my mouth, blinders for my eyes, chains on my arms. With the radiation I have lost my hair. The only way you can make your production goals is to give up your freedom."

From "In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power," by Shoshana Zuboff .

Copyright by Basic Books, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World