A brief encounter with 21st working life

AFTER all the hype about a Brief Encounter for 2014, the reality of the BBC’s drama The 7.39 was a tad disappointing.

It was a bitter-sweet romance with excellent performances from Olivia Colman (of course) and Sheridan Smith, and the men did what they could with their depressing roles of stressed out but basically decent husband and father Carl whose daily “commute” gives the show its title, and dull but controlling fitness fanatic Ryan (surely any woman would have run a mile or even a marathon to get away from him!).But you didn’t really care about any of them and the moral and ethical struggles that give Brief Encounter its emotional power were totally missing.

Now, a couple of weeks on, what stays in my mind is not the love stories, such as they were, but the ruthless working background against which David Morrissey’s character Carl was shown. It depicted accurately the pattern of hard-working people driven beyond endurance to breaking point by a working “culture” that excoriates any sign of “weakness,” that measures commitment as a 24/7 existence when the mobile phone must never be switched off and a private life is for failures and saddoes.

Anyone who has worked in this atmosphere will have instantly recognised the character of the boss, pressuring Carl to dismiss a young employee, with a new baby and a mortgage, because he arrives late for work and takes calls from his wife.

As Carl’s own personal life becomes more complicated, and he leaves work on time to go to the sports club (where he will meet his lover), the boss ratchets up the acid criticism, until he “lets him go,” in the poisonous jargon of contemporary business life.

Some years ago, a BBC radio presenter commented after an interview about employment and labour problems that “human resources” was a very different concept from “personnel” and how the new term devalued staff to the status of numbers.

Employees used to be “personnel” – if you had a problem, you could talk to your personnel officer. You felt they were there to help and if you were in a non-union job or a non-unionised business, this was your support, these were the people and place you went to for advice..

Nowadays it is a commonplace that HR (even the word “human” has been dropped) is on the employers’ side not the employees. The role of many HR officers and departments (of course, there must be some honourable exceptions) is to protect the company or corporation from any mistakes that might lead to (expensive) legal action ending in legal actions and employment tribunals. They don’t offer help in any practical way – they can call for reports on the employee’s state of mind or health, they will almost certainly propose endless meetings (talk has become a replacement for action or resolution) and they may even suggest you are greedy or a liar if you challenge the behaviour of your employers or ask for voluntary redundancy if your role has been drastically altered or undermined. They won’t investigate claims of bullying or sexual harrassment unless you betray confidences and name names and dates, disclosing the identity of a staff member who cannot afford to lose his or her job.

There is a macho culture in business that says that wanting eight hours sleep a night (or even six) is a sign of mental weakness. Insomnia is a badge of honour – ideally you get up at, say, 5am, make yourself a health drink or grab an energy can from the fridge, put on your running shoes and pound the pavements for an hour, or cycle to the gym for an hour of pain and punishment with your personal trainer.

Quick shower, jump in the BMW and you are in the office before most of your staff have even left home. There are no excuses for arriving even a few minutes late. Your wife gave birth overnight? That’s her problem. Your dog died? So what. The train was late? You should have got an earlier one. You had an upset stomach? Who cares. The car wouldn’t start? Walk.

Personal lives crumble in this pumped-up work environment. And it is not the fittest who survive or the most intelligent who prosper, but the harshest, the least empathetic or compassionate, the greediest and the most driven who rise to the top..

Is it any wonder that people crumple, have affairs, rely on alcohol or cocaine to get through – and that bonuses of 200 per cent or more are seen as just reward for lives that have no existence outside the office.

Oh brave new world that has such creatures in it.

Fanny Charles