Is there a human metric for the workplace?

Many of my friends are getting sick from work. After years of being on call 24/7, one landed in the emergency room with chest pains and chronic depression. Another went through a series of tests for abdominal ailments after months of overtime, producing top-quality projects with no end in sight. Other friends complain of chronic insomnia and vague anxiety that creeps into all aspects of their lives. Some sleep through weekends to refresh themselves from grueling workweeks.

They just can't handle the stress you say? Nope. These are people in their forties and fifties with years of consulting and managerial experience. They are some of the brightest, most dedicated and capable people I know. They are creative and flexible collaborators who want to do a good job for their companies, always. Often exhausted, they don't feel they have a choice but to soldier on in jobs that expect too much and give too little and not just in monetary compensation (although that is an issue for some). But in trust, respect and humane treatment.

So what constitutes humane treatment in today's economy? The New York Times article "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace," broke this discussion wide open with its scathing look at the workplace and culture at uber-retailer Amazon. There were accounts of people crying at their desks, routinely receiving emails after midnight, and being encouraged to tear down their colleague's work in a practice known as "purposeful Darwinism." As the article states, "[Amazon] is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable."

This article has received more comments on the Times website than any other article in the paper's history (5,858 comments at the moment). It sparked numerous responses from other newspapers and media outlets and an hour-long show on National Public Radio's Diane Rehm show. It has been a topic of conversation with nearly everyone I know during the past two weeks. 

The real surprise is not that Amazon is a brutal place to work in the winner-takes-all, online shopper sweepstakes. The revelation is how much this story resonated with such a wide range of people. Many workers in different industries -- law, medicine, consulting, technology -- feel stressed beyond their limits. This may explain, in part, why more people don't leave their jobs. With an epidemic of overly-stressed American workers, many feel there is nowhere else to go for relief.

Is big data to blame? These days, employee productivity is measured and analyzed, then repackaged and distributed as marching orders. At Amazon, individual productivity is measured daily, which appears to be a trend in worker productivity metrics. It's unclear whether these daily metrics account for team meetings and broken toilets, not to mention child care, doctor's appointments, and lost dogs or, God forbid, serious illness. 

Shouldn't there be a metric to account for how human beings work? I am not talking about coddling people, but identifying what a capable and efficient person can deliver in an average day. Historically, companies used a basic metric for humane treatment: hire enough people to handle the workload in eight hours a day. An old notion in today's economy, perhaps. 

Can big data actually help? Why not use metrics to identify when work expectations are being upped beyond the capacity of most mere mortals? By stretching workers beyond their human capacity, we are likely getting less, not more, productivity from them -- and fewer innovative ideas that today's companies need. 

Metrics could determine the optimal factors that enable individuals to deliver peak performance. Is there not a dynamic measure that can accurately predict the optimal work activity that coincides with the humane treatment of individual workers on a daily basis? You know, personalized measures for engaging and motivating employees, just like personalized email messages to sell you your favorite brand of shoes. 

An unrealistic notion? Maybe. But isn't it just the sort of innovative workplace idea we need to avoid burning people out to the point that they are no longer productive, or simply discarded? It's worth exploring a more sustainable approach to motivating and keeping great workers. Something that goes beyond the family friendly policies that only scratch the surface of what defines a great workplace. There must be a way to make both businesses and employees thrive simultaneously. If only we can get companies to see humanity in the data.