The reverberating hum of a gong and chimes from a crystal bowl wash over 30 Google employees as they lie on the floor of their London office.
“You feel reborn, like you’ve had the deepest, most restful sleep in your life,” said Laura Franses, describing the experience. Ms Franses is a former TV executive and the founder of Crystal Sound Lounge, which offers “sound bath” sessions to a roster of corporate clients including Google and WeWork.
Conversations about employee wellbeing have risen up the agenda in 2019 and employers such as Ms Franses’ clients are keen to keep up. The “mindfulness” app Headspace has more than 500 corporate clients, twice as many as last year.
But how deep does this new-found benevolence towards employees run? As companies seek plaudits for their attentiveness to staff mental health, improving parental leave and tackling sexual harassment, the fundamentals of employment — hours, pay and managerial expectations — can often seem resolutely unchanged and in some cases are getting worse.
Beware businesses bearing perks, said Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford business professor: “They say we’re going to put in a nap pod or put in a meditation room or do a yoga class as opposed to redesigning the work from the ground up.”
In the UK, mental ill health costs employers almost £35bn a year in lost productivity, absence and staff turnover, according to the Centre for Mental Health, a research and policy charity. While some studies have found mindfulness and other forms of meditation can reduce stress, taken in isolation they can be scant consolation in the face of long working hours or imperious management.
Although it is open to question how much difference this new enthusiasm for staff wellbeing makes to the day-to-day drudgery of work, there is one area where a change in staff priorities and views of what constitutes acceptable behaviour has brought action from employers — that is sexual harassment in the workplace.
With the #MeToo movement in full swing, it is much riskier for employers, from a financial and a reputational point of view, to ignore complaints. Jon Taylor, principal lawyer at EMW, said that businesses were now more willing to address “behaviour that might’ve been overlooked as ‘just banter’”.
According to non-profit organisation LeanIn, 70 per cent of US employees said their company had taken action to address harassment in 2019, up from 46 per cent in 2018.
Yet just as businesses try to make the office a more comfortable place to work, a growing number of people around the world — some by choice, many more by necessity — no longer experience work as a permanent employee based in a fixed place but find themselves instead in the “gig” economy, doing short-term, insecure work as directed by an app.
In the US, 7.9m people work directly for app-based services such as Uber and Instacart, according to advisory firm Staffing Industry Analysts. Others have had their livelihoods disrupted by the rise of these seemingly unstoppable online competitors. And a backlash is brewing.
Last month, New Jersey fined Uber $649m for classifying its drivers as contractors rather than employees, a designation that denies them health insurance, overtime pay, and other protections. This year, California passed a bill aimed at formally reclassifying gig workers as employees, though Uber and Lyft have promised to challenge this in the courts.
“Today, drivers have control over when, where, and how they work . . . We will continue to defend the innovation that makes that kind of choice, flexibility and independence a reality for over 200,000 drivers in California,” Uber’s chief legal officer Tony West told press at the time.
Shona Clarkson, an organiser at labour group Gig Workers Rising, disputed the real novelty of services like Uber and Lyft. “All that these gig economy companies have done is figure out a way to undermine the benefits and protections that workers fought for — fought for and won — decades ago,” she said, adding: “They figured out how to displace the cost of production on to the worker.”
Ms Clarkson said that it was much more difficult for gig economy workers to have their say. Complaints are easily ignored when your employer is an app and your line manager an algorithm.
In November, Rev, an online service for transcribing audio and video, gave two days’ notice before changing its pricing algorithm and lowering how much it paid for many jobs. “You’re at the mercy of what work is available and you’re at the mercy of however their algorithm prices that,” said Li Zilles, a Rev freelancer. The company’s management said the new prices were more reflective of the varying skill levels required for different jobs.
But even as some companies have moved away from the model of directly employing and taking responsibility for large numbers of staff, America’s biggest business lobby this year declared that making money for shareholders should no longer be the main priority. Other “stakeholders” such as employees and communities were just as important, the Business Roundtable declared in its updated statement of the purpose of a corporation.
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The statement, signed by 181 US chief executives including Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan, Larry Fink of BlackRock, and Tim Cook of Apple, was “a nice statement of sentiments”, Prof Pfeffer said, but: “As long as CEOs are still going to be compensated in stock, to say they’re not going to be obsessed by stock price is . . . insane.”
Ryan Gellert, the European head of outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, was also wary: “[It’s] a bunch of words and not much more than that — the question is what follows.”
But for all the changes that 2019 has brought to the working world, some real and some for now more rhetorical, how companies treat their employees remained fundamentally a question of responsibility, said Prof Pfeffer.
“When human beings go to work for an organisation they have put their physical and mental health on the line . . . some organisations will recognise that responsibility, some don’t. It’s as simple as that.”
Parental leave and recruitment
Some employers have made moves this year to entice employees with better parental leave. In October, investment management group Standard Life Aberdeen introduced one of the UK’s most generous policies, offering both parents nine months of fully paid leave.
Several of the big Wall Street banks also offer shared parental leave but these businesses remain the exception, not the rule. Moreover, according to research by parenting website Mumsnet, only 38 of the UK’s 350 biggest listed companies clearly outline parental leave options on their websites. In a survey conducted by the site, 80 per cent of parents and prospective parents said they worried that asking potential employers about parental leave would jeopardise their chances of a job.
Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, said that prospective fathers worried their employers would question their commitment or ambition if they took parental leave. “Publishing and celebrating these policies . . . could go some way to reassuring new dads and breaking down these cultural assumptions.”