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Abuse of employees in the public service

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Walk into some public service buildings and there is a sense of decay. There is sign language on walls telling a tedious story on the history of occupation of these buildings. There are layers and shades of grime…from black to deep brown fading to the yellowish colour of oil. It bleeds into painted walls to form greasy patterns. 

The sun is denied entry of its rays to give at least some natural lighting. Little sunlight enters these offices. Stale air circulates. A person prone to allergies would itch and sneeze and their sinuses would constrict and breathing would become difficult. Just think of the impact on employees’ health. That’s abuse.

The dirt left by fingers around light switches is alive with microorganisms capable of turning the switches on and off. In the work areas, employees move behind counters or cubicles that look similar to the visitor areas of prisons seen in old-time movies. 

The body language of some employees gives the impression they are only working there because they have to. They chat with each other in view of waiting customers. Such poor work ethic cannot be justified. Be that as it may, given the unwholesome working conditions, were it not for employee socialisation, there would be more work rage and customer abuse. 

A significant and important aspect of work life is employee socialisation. This has a profound effect on morale and productivity, regardless of how poor the physical environment. That is a truism established in the early smokestack days of the Industrial Revolution by the fathers of modern management, but known to ancient tribal leaders and military leaders.

Soldiers work in the harshest of environments, but they cope well psychologically within the bosom of the brotherhood. Touch one and you touch all. Similarly, cuss up one public servant at the peril of your time and sanity. Hope you won’t have to go back to the same office. 

So it is your turn at the counter. The service was good and the officer was courteous. There are other times when employees’ attitudes are similar to the unfriendly buildings they work in. By and large, employees in the public sector perform their jobs fairly well under the most appalling conditions. This situation is not different from the conditions in many private-sector companies, particularly non-unionised ones. 

In most cases, there are no public amenities—not different across the commercial and industrial landscape. Depending on the government agency and the situation, a customer may be allowed to use employee facilities—usually about two toilets for all the employees in the building. 

Public areas are claustrophobic. Look up and there are ceiling stains. Some are wet and alive, progressing to gaping holes. From time to time, foul smells may distract—the scent of food from nearby retail outlets mixed with the scent of vagrant urine carried with the wind when doors are opened.  

Public-sector workplaces are excellent laboratories for business students to study: The Social and Economic Impact of the Neglect of Occupational Health and Safety. A more specific topic could be: The Impact on National Development of Governments’ Abuse of Public-Sector Employees. 

It is decades ago since I first entered the Licensing Office on Wrightson Road. Today, I can’t observe anything better about that place than back in time. It is the worst. Its dinginess harks back to infinity. The back offices conjure images of slave dwellings. Then there are the Inland Revenue offices, and other government offices, some of which are decorated with weeds growing from roofs and wall crevices. Inside, the musty scent of insect and rodent spoor remains trapped in mould and dust. 

Is this a country that cares about its only real resource—human beings? Do our governments ever get priorities right? Do citizens ever give a thought for the conditions of public-sector workers? Or is it we are only mindful of their value to society when they strike and sick-out? That is not advocated here.

Academia is littered with the results of research, which links employee disengagement with unhealthy and unsafe work environments. Lack of proper ventilation and lighting, noise, bad odours, cramped work spaces, clutter, dirt and other hygiene factors lead to absenteeism, distraction, lack of interest, anger, poor service, and low productivity. 

The significant health issues are not situations that could be fixed by supervisors and permanent secretaries. These are major physical and structural problems with aged buildings where maintenance requires specialised interventions and large monetary investments, or relocation of the employees.

Yes, there are situations which raise questions about management’s performance standards, individual pride, training, and lack of consequence management. But a permanent secretary can only do so much. He/she can submit reports and recommend budgets, just like prison inspectors can inspect prisons and make reports. The buck stops with the Government. 

When the Government as an employer talks about innovation and productivity, is it clueless about the environmental and intellectual nature of these things? No. It is just insensitive.


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