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We will never really know why 10 workers at a Hon Hai Precision Industry plant in China have committed suicide this year and three others there have attempted to kill themselves. Yet their actions are a stark reminder for managers everywhere: The most complicated thing you will ever deal with, by far, is not some elaborate IT system or intricate financial model, but rather the people you must lead and inspire every day.
Work "is impersonal and objective," Peter Drucker wrote in his 1973 classic, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. "But working is done by a human being. … As the old human relations tag has it, 'One cannot hire a hand; the whole man always comes with it.' "
Because of this, Drucker believed, working has five specific dimensions, each of which recognizes that what we do on the job is "an essential part" of our humanity.
First, there is a physiological dimension. "If confined to an individual motion or operation, the human being tires fast," Drucker pointed out. What's more, he added, people perform best if they're able to vary "both speed and rhythm fairly frequently" as they tackle a particular task. "What is good industrial engineering for work," Drucker concluded, "is exceedingly poor human engineering for the worker."
In China, some labor activists maintain that the shifts at Hon Hai, also known as Foxconn, are too long, the work is too repetitive, and the assembly line churning out products for Apple (AAPL), HP (HPQ), and others moves too fast. The company, based in Taiwan, has denied these charges. But there is no getting around the fact that all over the world, including in the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, a huge body of research has found that many people are overworked and their physical health is declining as a result.
This problem isn't confined to those in factory jobs; knowledge workers are suffering similarly. Late last month, a senior executive at Bank of New York Mellon in London sued the firm for, among other things, allegedly piling on too much work. He had previously complained to his employer that "we are all working … unbearably hard."
The second dimension of a person at work is psychological. "Work is an extension of personality," Drucker wrote. "It is achievement. It is one of the ways in which a person defines himself or herself."
Tellingly, perhaps, a 19-year-old Hon Hai worker who jumped to his death last week from a fifth-floor window of a training center left behind a note indicating that he had "lost confidence" in the future and had become convinced that what he once hoped to accomplish at work "far outweighed what could be achieved."
Although this young man's reaction to such feelings was obviously extreme, the struggle to find meaning and fulfillment on the job is hardly unusual. Earlier this year, the Conference Board reported that only 45 percent of the Americans it surveyed are happy with their jobs, down from 61 percent in 1987—a long-term slide that the research organization said "should be a red flag to employers."
The third dimension of working, according to Drucker, is that it provides a sense of community. Even in cases where people have outside activities, he wrote, the workplace is where they find much of their "companionship" and "group identification."
In the case of Hon Hai, some observers have suggested that the company has grown so quickly, with about 400,000 workers at its sprawling Longhua complex, it has been difficult to forge these social bonds. One news report from Beijing quoted a former employee as saying: The factory "is too big. When I was walking to and from work … I felt helplessly lonely."
Those employing knowledge workers, meanwhile, face their own challenges on this front, as people have more and more choices about where they live and work and with whom they affiliate. For managers, this pattern leads to a tough question: How can you foster a close-knit community in an age of worker mobility?
Drucker's fourth dimension of working is that it's "a living"—"the foundation" of a person's "economic existence." In the U.S., Conference Board officials have made a direct link between people's low job satisfaction and the dual hardship of stagnant wages and high out-of-pocket health-care costs.
China, where income inequality is widening, is now dealing with its own economic strife. A Honda Motor (HMC) transmission plant in Guangdong province resumed normal operations this week after the automaker offered to increase compensation by 24 percent to end a strike there. Also this week, Hon Hai announced that it would boost its workers' pay by 30 percent. The company stressed that the raise was a response to a labor shortage, not the suicides, but one representative acknowledged that the move could help lift morale.
The fifth and final dimension, Drucker explained, is that there "is always a power relationship implicit … in working within an organization." In any business, after all, "jobs have to be designed, structured, and assigned. Work has to be done on schedule and in a prearranged sequence. People are promoted or not promoted." The trick, said Drucker, is to balance this authority with employee participation—to make sure that workers are given an adequate amount of freedom and responsibility.
But this is far from the only trick. Indeed, the thorniest job for any manager is to simultaneously address all of these things: the physiological, the psychological, the social, the economic, and the power dimension of working. The interplay among them, Drucker cautioned, "may be far too complex ever to be truly understood."
Still, managers must try—with intelligence, sensitivity, and the constant realization that, while there is more to life than work, working is life.