Responsibility and Engagement as Possible Remedies for Workplace Problems

In a series of studies summarized in the July 4, 2014 issue of the journal Science, participants were subjected to electric shocks; afterwards, they agreed that they would be willing to pay money not to be shocked again.  They were then placed in isolation, awake, for 15 minutes, without cell phones, writing instruments, or other distractions, and told that they could subject themselves to more electric shocks if they wished.  It appears that two-thirds of the men, and one-quarter of the women, preferred to subject themselves to painful electric shocks rather than be left alone with their own thoughts.

Studies like this remind us that boredom can easily be underestimated.  A New York court decision from the early 1900’s, Sigmon v. Goldstone, 116 A.D. 490, 101 N.Y.S. 984 (1st Dep’t 1906), recognized this, holding that forcing an employee to sit in a darkened room all day, doing nothing and receiving pay for it, was in fact a form of constructive discharge, and a reasonable employee would have no choice but to resign.  (The court regarded this as a breach an implied term of the relationship.)  Further, we might predict that some employees who aren’t engaged in their work, and who fail to understand the value of their contributions, may lapse into gossip, mischief, malice, or self-destruction simply to make the hours pass.  Such behavior may not be as dramatic as self-administered electric shocks, but perhaps they’re a corporate equivalent.

It would be nice to put employees at ease with their own thoughts and teach them more fulfilling habits of conduct, and some wellness programs offer yoga, meditation, or other techniques that can reduce stress and make employees less dependent on distractions.  But such programs, and meditation in particular, may not be for everyone.   And in any event, whatever the value of these coping strategies in their own right, they do not address the underlying problem from an employment perspective, which is that employees are most happy and productive when they are engaged and satisfied in their work, and bickering, factionalized employees are clearly anything but engaged.  This isn’t to say that every task needs to be glorified, and employees certainly shouldn’t be patronized; but meaningful feedback and compliments on a job well done, allowing sufficient break time, giving employees outlets for their creativity, and entrusting workers with as much responsibility as they can handle may help reduce problems with gossip, agitation, and infighting that plague so many workplaces.

This post was written by : John Keil

About the author : Mr. Keil is a partner at boutique labor and employment law firm Collazo Florentino & Keil LLP.