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Jackson M, editor. Stress in Post-War Britain, 1945–85. New York (NY): Routledge; 2015.

Cover of Stress in Post-War Britain, 1945–85

Stress in Post-War Britain, 1945–85.

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In 1946, Delmar S. Harder (1892–1973), Vice-President for Manufacturing at the Ford Motor Company in the US, introduced a new word, ‘automation’, into the English language. Harder coined the term as a ‘nickname’ to describe a production process that had been installed at the company's Detroit factory and which linked together a number of automatic machines into one integrated process.1 The application of automatic operation to manufacturing processes was not new in the 1940s. It had been increasingly applied across the US, Europe and Britain throughout the inter-war period in a range of manufacturing contexts, including the production of textiles, cigarettes, the chemical industry and other processes where very large outputs were required. However, in the post-war period, the issue of automation and its impact, not only on the lives of individual industrial workers, but also on the psychosocial foundations of the nation as a whole, became a subject of widespread debate. Contemporary observers noted the speed and extent of change that accompanied the implementation of automated production systems within a host of new industries and raised anxieties about the possible short and long-term effects on health.

This chapter will examine both the positive and negative perspectives presented in these debates, exploring some of the key concerns around the impact of automation on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of those working in British industry in the second-half of the twentieth century. It will begin by examining public perceptions of automation, exploring the emergence of concerns around the impact of automation on worker health in the context of significant political, economic and social change in the immediate post-war period. It will highlight the polarized nature of attitudes to automation and the manner in which they shaped subsequent medical, political and industrial debates. It will argue that the growth of automation contributed to a significant shift from the long-standing concerns around physical and mental ‘fatigue’, which had dominated approaches towards industrial medicine in the early twentieth century and the inter-war period, to a new focus on psycho-social factors, including ‘mental strain’, ‘nervous strain’ and ‘stress disorder’. Secondly, it will explore widespread concerns about the mental and physical pressures created by the introduction of Time and Motion Study practices which accompanied automation and which raised questions about the speed of technological change, the operational rates of new machinery, anxiety disorders arising from job insecurity and task re-orientation, and emotional problems arising from tasks involving the supervision of machinery, roles in which operators were simply ‘waiting for nothing to happen’.2

Occupational health in the context of factory production has been the focus of a great deal of historical interest in the past three decades. However, much of this work has focused on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with developments in the decades after the Second World War being largely ignored.3 Studies that have examined industrial life in this specific period have concentrated predominantly on issues of industrial relations, workplace culture, and the internal politics of supervisory management practices, with particular emphasis on the development of ‘Fordist’ strategies in the context of industrial relations within the automobile industry.4 The role played by automation within these developments has received limited consideration by historians. By drawing examples from three industries, namely the car manufacturing industry, the tobacco industry and the boot and shoe industry, this chapter aims to address the absence of studies in this area and to add substantially to historical understanding of debates about, and experiences of, stress and work.

Study of these industrial cases reveals two key themes. Firstly, they illustrate prominent preoccupations with the impact of modernity on mental health and emotional well-being in the post-war years. This focus particularly highlighted the notion of psychological adjustment, emphasizing the importance of the ability of individual workers to adapt mentally and physically to the rapidly changing demands of the industrial workplace. Secondly, a study of the introduction of automated processes highlights the connections between occupational health and managerial control. Concerns over workplace control emphasized the impact of automation on changing managerial strategies, worker agency and the relationship between man and machine. Central to these debates were fears that automation would result in de-humanization of the workplace, either through the removal of humans from the production processes or from workers being forced into unskilled and depersonalized roles that were controlled by technological demands.

The Growth of Automation

The term ‘automation’ was derived from the Greek ‘automatos’ (self-moving) and Harder's 1940s Fordist definition was a narrow one. His original words described automation as ‘the automatic handling of materials and parts in and out of machines’, with specific reference to new automated ways of moving components and materials between different stages of production. However, by the mid-1950s, the definition had been widened within industrial manufacturing to encompass three specific technical innovations: ‘Transfer (Detroit) Automation’, referring to the installation of automatic production lines and advanced techniques of material and product handling, and assembly; ‘Control Automation’, a rapid development of techniques of automatic control over manufacturing processes; and ‘Computer Automation’, the rapid and automatic processing of information by electronic digital computer.5

In Britain, the adoption of these forms of automated processes was considered the primary means of achieving the manufacturing efficiency and industrial growth needed to rebuild the economic strength of the nation in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. With the Government actively promoting a major ‘push for productivity’,6 the emphasis on ever-increasing manufacturing efficiency dominated both political and industrial approaches throughout this period in a way that had not previously been seen. Automation enabled unprecedented attainment of levels of production and profitability. According to many industrialists in the late 1940s, the potential impact of automation was of such significance that it heralded the dawn of a ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ and a ‘New Era’ of prosperity.7

By the mid-1950s, however, there was a growing public concern about the speed and extent of change arising from technological advancement, and about the effect that automation would have on workers' lives and on society in general. The Society for Science and the Public observed that ‘at no time during automation's history has it moved so fast and so forcefully’.8 Debates which emerged at this time were deeply polarized. Some considered automation to be an exciting, welcome, perhaps inevitable, advancement in man's harnessing of scientific and technological knowledge. From this perspective, automation was an important tool for achieving economic growth, higher standards of living, increased freedom and easier lives for all. By contrast, those who viewed automation as a potentially negative development identified ways in which automation could threaten the health and livelihoods of the nation's industrial workforce. This side of the debate foresaw a range of increasing demands, both physical and psychological, that individual workers were likely to encounter. These conflicting views of automation are evident in lectures and conference papers presented to industrialists in this period, and are neatly summarized in the title of a conference speech given to the Institute of Production Engineers in 1955 by industrialist, Sir Walter Puckey (1899–1983) who posed the question, ‘The Automatic Factory: Dream or Nightmare?’9

In the early years of the 1950s the pessimistic view of automation as a potential ‘nightmare’ dominated public perceptions. In part, negativity was fuelled by images of the industrial workplace presented in contemporary popular culture, most notably, the film industry. Negative views were evident in Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times, a humorous but scathing critique of the de-humanizing effects of industrialization. The film was a political statement by Chaplin on the impact of modernity on people's working lives and mental health, and resonated with a broader, long-standing notion of ‘the human motor’, the harnessing of human energy into industrial productivity. Anson Rabinbach has argued that, whilst this unflattering metaphor was significant in the inter-war period and persisted into the immediate post-war period, by the mid-1950s it was being replaced by a more positive perspective on automation as a means to ‘liberate work from the materiality and physicality of the body’.10 However, the visual image presented by Chaplin became an enduring representation of industrial automation, to the extent that Chaplin's film was still being publicly evoked and referenced well into the 1960s, more than twenty years after its release. In a BBC broadcast in 1964, for example, industrialist Sir Leon Bagrit (1902–79) stated:

Most people would feel, with Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times at the back of their mind, that a car assembly plant represents everything they fear in the way of automatic and semi-automatic machinery.11

By the mid-1950s, the Government's Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) had conceded that automation was ‘whatever its faults, a word which has come to stay’.12 The World Health Organization (WHO) noted in 1959 that the term had become ‘a very real generator of anxiety reactions among workers, but even more so among the general public’, adding that ‘certain popular literature warns humanity against the industrial hell towards which it is inexorably moving’.13 Debates amongst industrialists in the 1960s illustrate continuing anxieties: ‘For many people, automation is a terrifying word. It conjures up visions of tyrannical machines reducing man to the status of a mere pusher of buttons or watcher of dials, abolishing the need for human thought and judgment’.14 Psychological insecurity accompanying automation was further articulated by workers at Ford Motor Company's Dagenham factory in 1962, who stated that ‘automations and all new techniques, instead of being something to be welcomed by workers, becomes something to be feared, to make us unsure of the future’.15 However, the WHO noted the unconstructive nature of the polarized debates around automation, observing in 1959 that:

Both at the subjective and objective level, far too many loose statements of an emotionally charged nature are being made. While some overstress the beneficial and hopeful aspects to a point where one might consider that automation is about to build a human paradise, others take the role of Cassandra and describe the changes to be expected in terms which are unduly alarming and pessimistic.16

In seeking to achieve an objective perspective and to examine the credibility of concerns around automation, a number of formal investigations and studies were instigated by a range of different agents, including government officials, medical professionals and social scientists. These studies presented a new perspective on inter-war pre-occupations with ‘the human problems of industry’.17 Most prominent amongst these studies were those carried out by the DSIR, the WHO, the Industrial Welfare Society, the Ergonomics Research Society, the Social Science Research Council and the London Co-operative Party. The subject was also a primary source of discussion amongst industrialists and trade unions, with a number of conferences and lecture series held by these groups specifically to explore the potential impact of automation.

The case for this quantity of research rested on the assumption that there was something special about automation which created psychosocial problems that were different from those generated by other forms of technical progress, such as mechanization.18 An emphasis on psychosocial factors is particularly evident in a study instigated by the WHO in 1958. Focusing directly on the ‘mental health problems of automation’, the study aimed to examine ‘the possible dangers of automation for the psychosocial foundations of human behaviour and mental health’.19 Identifying the importance of ‘psychosocial maintenance’, the subsequent report called for attention to be devoted to aspects of social environment, both inside and outside the factory, for ‘the protection and promotion of mental health’.20

The prospect of medical and scientific investigation into the effects of automation led industrialists to argue that the adoption of automated processes would create vast improvements in the working conditions of factory operatives. In their view, automation would be beneficial to health as it would result in: reduced demands for physical strength, dexterity and mental aptitude; less task-related drudgery and boredom; more remote power handling instead of close manual handling ; fewer people required to operate the processes, therefore less risk to life and limb; and an improvement in processes known to be hazardous to health.21 Representing the British motor industry, mechanical engineer Frank Woollard (1883–1957) argued, in 1955, that:

With the aid of automation I am of the opinion that we shall enter a new phase of fine living. Automation is a means for increasing man's stature and for extending his ability to do more and more useful work; to produce in greater volume with less physical effort or mental strain – a means whereby he can bring to his fellows the fulfilment of their lawful desires and, to their homes, comfort and leisure.22

Observers particularly highlighted the benefits that automation would bring to the quality of life for female workers, with predictions that automation would lead to unprecedented domestic contentment. Sir Leon Bagrit, for example, observed:

I am sure that automation is going to free both women and society from the need for routine drudgery in factories and offices. If, as a nation, we become productive enough and consequently rich enough to make the man's wage packet sufficient for the family needs, many women would prefer to go to the hairdresser rather than the factory.23

This statement reflected and reinforced a long-standing patriarchal belief that women would ‘naturally’ prefer to remain in the domestic sphere.24 However, this rhetoric ignored the increasingly crucial role played by the female workforce in post-war industrial production. Miriam Glucksmann has argued that the advent of mass consumer production resulted in women assuming a heightened significance in the workplace, being the preferred source of semi-skilled labour for many employers.25 Automation therefore provided greater opportunities for women to gain employment, although the roles and tasks they were assigned were restricted within gendered boundaries. Elisabeth Hagen and Jane Jenson have further argued that there was a change in the broader relationship between women and work, with their attachment to employment becoming more permanent.26 Debbie Palmer, however, has noted higher rates of sickness absence amongst women employees than men.27 Contemporary sociologists Alva Myrdal (1902–86) and Viola Klein (1908–73) concluded that ‘conflicts of loyalty’ between work and domestic responsibilities resulted in higher levels of stress for women, leading to ill-health.28 Interviews with female operators working in the shoe industry in the 1960s highlight the significance of social relationships as a key factor in the maintenance of mental health in the workplace. Their accounts suggest that emotional support from fellow workers was important in aiding their individual abilities to balance the demands of work and domestic lives, and to adapt psychologically to technological or structural change in the workplace.29

Medical studies also supported the possibility that automation could be a beneficial development for certain aspects of worker health. The WHO report stated that:

In fact, while automation is often thought to be ‘de-humanising’ the production process, it is considered on the other hand to relieve humanity from a great deal of drudgery and strain such as resulted from the introduction of earlier types of mechanisation, particularly those in which hard physical effort was replaced by the repetitive work of the assembly line.30

However, the report also concluded that:

automation must be considered both as a source of possible improvements in mental health and as a source of new types of strain which will require full consideration and fully planned preventative action.31

The ‘new types of strain’ identified by the WHO, and its call for preventative action, resonated with other studies which warned that different forms of automation could give rise to specific problems that would affect particular groups of workers in varying ways. They highlighted issues relating to three specific groups: assembly line workers, staff employed to monitor computerized systems and office workers. The studies predicted problems relating to two key issues: psychological adjustment and managerial control.

Psychological Adjustment and Adaptation

It was widely recognized that automation meant change. As several contemporaries argued, it was fundamentally a process which sought to remove human labour from the industrial process in the name of efficiency.32 It involved changes to the production processes on the factory floor, the types of machines used, the placement and location of machines, the numbers of workers needed to operate and oversee the machines and the types of tasks and operations that workers would be required to do. Several prominent studies highlighted the potential for mental and emotional stress arising from these specific changes. Primarily, this included the loss of long-established jobs as humans were replaced by machines, the reallocation of tasks, the ‘de-skilling’ of the workforce, the monotony of tasks created by automated processes, the physical isolation of workers and the increased demands and physical strains of shift work.

Identifying the significant impact that such changes could have on mental and emotional health, from the mid-1950s onwards medical professionals began to link automation with a newly emergent medical model of adaptation and ‘stress’, conceptualized and popularized by Walter B. Cannon (1871–1945) and Hans Selye (1907–82).33 The extent to which an individual worker might be affected by stress in the newly automated workplace was seen to be determined by their ability to adapt to change, with studies underlining the need for workers to be psychologically prepared for change, and to be flexible and open to the likelihood that the arrival of automation in their factories would result in them being assigned different tasks to those for which they had been trained or had grown accustomed to performing. The 1959 World Health Organization (WHO) report particularly highlighted the role played by individual adaptation and adjustment in the maintenance of good mental health:

The adaptability of human beings is great, and most individuals maintain themselves in adequate mental health by an active search for the minimum social and emotional requirements necessary for this purpose and by active adaptation to changes in their social situation within the household or family, within the working group, and within the one or more recreational groups of which most people are members.34

Revealing a theoretical approach framed around well-established psychological notions of individual differences, it observed that ‘change requires a certain adaptation and the capacity for this varies from one individual to another’, emphasizing that ‘the extent of adaptive effort required is likely to show considerable differences between individuals’.35 The WHO went on to conclude that the introduction of automation had several potential psychological repercussions that could result in ‘reactions affecting mental health’. These could be emotional reactions, arising from the anticipation of the possible consequences of new technological methods, or reactions of persons exposed to actual physiological and psychological strain.36 It stated:

Where the adaptive effort is beyond the resources of the individual the minimum level of social requirements for mental health will not be reached and a clinically recognizable state of ill health will appear.37

One of the primary adaptations noted was adjustment to changes in staffing and employment levels that would accompany automation. The greatest fear expressed in many debates was that it would lead to a diminution of labour requirements and widespread unemployment; humans would be replaced by machines. Labour MPs representing the Co-operative Society built this prospect into their official definition of automation, pronouncing in 1957 that ‘automation can be simply defined as the move towards production without human labour towards the factory without workers’.38 The WHO noted the prominence of this argument in 1959, observing that ‘even quite responsible authors have been known to state that “it is perfectly clear that this [automation] will produce an unemployment situation in comparison with which the depression of the thirties will seem an unpleasant joke”’.39

Much of the fear over unemployment amongst British workers arose from observing the spread of automation in the US Reports which cited instances in the automobile industry where a workforce of 23,000 was reduced to 10,000 following automation, or a radio assembly line, where two workers now did the job of 200.40 Archival sources indicate that British fears linking automation to unemployment were perhaps well-grounded. Trade union documents relating to employment tribunal disputes within the tobacco industry reveal that, since 1938, a gradual introduction of new types of automated machinery and new methods of production had resulted in 8,000 fewer workers employed in the industry by the mid-1950s. This trend was verified by figures published in the Ministry of Labour Gazette which identified a continuing reduction of 1,600 male and 4,500 female workers employed in the industry between 1950 and 1956.41

It was noted, however, that despite a reduction in the labour force of approximately 23 per cent since 1948, productivity had actually increased by 20 per cent between 1947 and 1952. Evidence presented in industrial tribunals argued that, whilst technological improvements could be considered one possible factor in this increase, this phenomenon had mostly resulted from ‘a greater concentration of effort, both physical and mental, on the part of a smaller number of operatives’.42 This implied that automation provided employers with the opportunity to reduce the size of their workforce, but that the reduced workforce was subsequently placed under significant pressure to meet ever-increasing production targets. Evidence to support this trend was also presented by trade union shop stewards at Ford, who highlighted how tensions arising from fluctuations in car sales were used as an opportunity by management to reduce the number of workers on the automated production lines:

If 100 men are producing 100 cars and the number required dropped to ninety, then ten men would be taken off. But when the schedule went back up to 100 jobs again, only seven men would be put back. Thus ninety-seven men would now be doing work previously done by 100. With the schedule of vehicles fluctuating daily this device led to many clashes.43

A reduction in the numbers of operatives and line workers per unit area could impact on emotional well-being in other ways. Several studies highlighted the negative effects, on psychological health, of isolation and solitude experienced by many workers in the industrial workplace. The WHO noted that this problem frequently affected assembly-line workers in instances where worker numbers had been significantly reduced and machines repositioned to prevent social contact.44 Deliberate prevention of social contact between workers as a planned management strategy has been recorded as the source of emotional stress in sociological studies of the car industry in this period.45 The WHO observed the ‘depressing effects which excessive isolation may produce’ as ‘the absence of social contacts is something which, by his very nature, man cannot endure for long’.46 However, a survey conducted by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in 1960 concluded that physical isolation did not necessarily equate to social isolation, and that operators may have had the freedom to leave smooth–running machines for brief periods. The WHO subsequently concluded that isolation occurred most often in situations of ‘insufficient automation’, and that increased automation would actually reduce the problem.47 Both surveys did, however, acknowledge that social isolation could occur in workplace situations where the noise of machinery was so excessive that workers could not talk intelligibly to each other, even at close quarters. They noted that this problem was most likely to arise in workshops with smaller automated machines, such as automatic looms.48

Debates emphasizing the negative impact on mental health and emotional well-being created by the experience and reality of redundancy and unemployment also highlighted the significant levels of anxiety created by imagined fears around job insecurity. Anxieties created by job insecurity reinforced a theory presented by psychiatrist Harold G. Woolf (1898–1962) in 1953 that new emotional tensions, or ‘loss of anchorage’, occurred in the post-war period as a result of rapid social change and political instability in the context of a changing world order and the emergent Cold War.49 Drawing on Selye's work, Woolf argued that ‘man's sensitivity to his place in society, his status in the eyes of other men, is central to the problem of stress’.50 Further psychiatric debates emphasized the important role that work played in creating and reinforcing personal status in society, individual social identities and positive mental health. Exploring the role of industry in the aetiology of stress disorder in 1966, psychiatrist J. D. Sutherland (1906–91) observed that ‘work activities give man a part of his very identity’, warning that ‘a threat to his own individual contribution can prove extremely disturbing’.51 Automation provided such a threat in its requirement for individual adaptation to changes in long-established and highly-skilled work activities, which previously had required many years of training and experience to master. Many of the negative expectations about automation, therefore, centred on worries about the changing nature of work activities and tasks, particularly fears around the replacement of skilled jobs with semi-skilled or unskilled work.

De-skilling of the workplace had serious implication for the psychological self-esteem and economic potential of workers where existing training and experience were no longer of use or value to employers. The relationship between skilled work and psychological health was emphasized in industrial health literature at the time. For example, one psychology text-book published in 1950 stated:

What are the psychological and social factors in modern life which produce an attitude of mind amongst so many persons, which prevent them from working to the best of their capabilities? In most individuals it can be ascribed to an absence of the natural joy of craftsmanship arising from skilled labour.52

As well as a loss of status and psychological self-esteem, the re-categorization of workers from ‘skilled’ to ‘semi-skilled’ or ‘unskilled’ had significant implications for earning potential as less skilled work resulted in lower pay grades. Further fears centred on the assumption that re-assignment to unskilled tasks would increase ‘drudgery’ in the workplace and workers would become little more than robotic components of the machinery, as foreseen in Chaplin's Modern Times. This fear is evident in a range of literature produced by contemporary worker organizations, which regarded automation as a process of depersonalization and dehumanization. Several arguments were presented by industrialists and politicians in attempts to dispel this perception. For example, the DSIR stated in 1956 that: ‘automation will not make robots of us all. On the contrary, it will demand wider knowledge, greater ability and a higher degree of skill from worker and manager alike’53 According to Alastair Reid, previous historical analysis has been similarly framed by an assumption that technological innovation would inevitably lead to de-skilling, neglecting the requirement for new or different skills.54 In order to promote a positive message, the DSIR produced a pamphlet in 1960, which set out a detailed description of the range of new skills, particularly amongst technicians and managers, that would be required in each field of automated processes.55 One specific area where higher degrees of skill would be needed was identified as ‘Control Automation’.

Control Automation involved the overseeing and supervision of machines, demanding adaptation from manual work to perceptual activities. These were the sitting-down, dial-watching jobs, where, in the words of R. C. Browne, Professor of Industrial Health at the University of Newcastle, staff were often passively ‘waiting for nothing to happen’.56 In these jobs, knowledge and skills would only be needed if something went wrong. Industrialists argued that this form of task could bring major benefits to some workers. Presenting a paper to a symposium on ‘The Changing Demands of Modern Work and Control’, held in Bristol in 1957, Chris Jones of the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company created an image of a new industrial utopia, arguing that the emergence of these types of jobs would create a new category of ‘brain-worker’, or ‘mental-craftsman’, who, between periods of ‘on-call’ work, would spend most of their time at home. Drawing on nostalgic images of a pre-industrial rural idyll, he argued that the home and factory would come together ‘as in the heyday of the (pre-industrial) crafts’.57

Vicky Long has argued that the mixing of industrial and domestic as a psychological tool for increased productivity was a feature of the establishment of new ‘model factories’ in the inter-war period.58 However, whilst this tactic was successfully embraced in the earlier period, the idealized notion presented by industrialists in the 1950s was strongly challenged by contemporaries. Several medical studies, for example, warned that, in reality, the unseen demands of these jobs could actually result in high levels of mental strain and anxiety. The WHO suggested that these jobs entailed greater responsibility, as workers had to ensure the smooth running of large and extremely costly machines around which whole processes, even whole factories, operated, and which resulted in major economic repercussions if things did go wrong. They argued that, contrary to the belief that operators sat all day doing nothing, these types of tasks required a high degree of attention, accompanied by the need to keep alert for many hours every day in order to react instantaneously to alarm signals which might vary in perceptibility and only rarely went off. The study found that this perceptual burden resulted in particularly ‘heavy nervous strain’, as the operator was not able to offset his vigilance by any other motor activity. The need for constant attention could also be accompanied by unrecognized subliminal attention, preventing rest and resulting in muscular and psychological fatigue. It was argued that this could produce ‘strain on the total personality and even permanent “tension states” which could provoke neurotic and psycho-neurotic disorders’.59

In addition to psychological problems, medical professionals writing in The British Medical Journal warned of the physical consequences of this type of work, stating, in 1957, that ‘long periods of muscular inactivity, with greater responsibility, and too little physical and too much mental stress’ might lead to an increase in degenerative vascular disease, noting that this was a development that was already apparent in the US.60 Accounts from other industries highlighted the physical fatigue and emotional stress experienced by operatives working on production lines centred on conveyor belt systems. One operator in the car component industry recalled:

The pressure was constant; it ensured a high level of production for the firm but it took its toll on us. At the end of the day we were all ‘jaded’, but which limbs ached the most depended on the particular job you'd been doing. The jobs were hard on the eyes – concentrating so hard all the time … made your head buzz.61

Increased levels of physical and emotional stress arising from automation were used by trade union representatives as a bargaining tool for demanding reductions in working hours. In a dispute involving a worker at the Wills Tobacco factory in Bristol in 1956, for example, representatives from the Tobacco Workers' Union argued:

with machine speeds higher now than ever before, and with 80% of the processes consisting of a repetitive nature, the present nine hour day is too long … Whilst the employers may rightly claim that the increases in production were due largely to the introduction of new types of expensive machinery, it was also true that those machines had increased the mental strain of the workers concerned and the monotony of the work to be performed by those workers.62

In this case, the tribunal supported the evidence presented by the employer, thus providing a legal validation for industrialists' arguments that automation did not negatively impact on physical or mental health. Despite the warning presented by medical professionals and worker representatives, examination of debates between industrialists indicates that concerns over the ability of the workforce to adapt to these types of change were readily dismissed. The President of the Institution of Production Engineers, for example, stated at an industry conference in 1955 that:

the impact of automation on the mass of working people is not, in my view, very likely to bring them new worries. The great expansion in mechanisation is conditioning men to accept change.63

Archival evidence suggests that anxiety and psychological pressure arose as much from the expectation and fear of change as from the actual experience and reality. Browne argued that the prospect of automation might give rise to a ‘transient feeling of tension in the early months’ which would disappear once workers had got used to the new machines.64 A study carried out by the Industrial Working Party for the Boot and Shoe Industry in 1946 supported this theory, noting that once workers had become familiar with new automated systems, they did ultimately acknowledge the changes as an improvement in their working conditions. Their report states that, at one factory where automation had been newly introduced, the alteration ‘was not well liked at first’, but workers ‘soon adapted themselves to the new arrangement and found they were less fatigued at the end of the day's work’.65 There was, however, one issue which dominated worker concerns above all other throughout this period, and which had featured prominently in public conceptions of automation. If the nature of post-war industrial work was to be determined by the demands of new technology, then who was in control: management or worker; man or machine?

Controlling the Line: The Impact of Time and Motion Study

The issue of control in the maintenance of mental health is a crucial but highly complex one. In terms of health in the workplace, ‘control’ was defined as the freedom of individuals to make decisions affecting their immediate working environment. This included such factors as the pace and rhythm of work, the choice of working position, the allocation of tasks and adjustment of the temperature or humidity of the workplace. It was also framed around a complex interplay between different agents, including management hierarchies, trades unions, independent consultants, politicians and individual workers. The subject of workplace control and its impact on industrial relations and economic performance in post-war British industry has been the subject of historical investigation.66 However, the relationship between production control and worker health has been less fully explored. In the context of post-war industrial production, the key factor which dominated debates about the impact of automation on health was the setting of the speeds at which automated production lines would run.

Decisions over machine speed were framed by the theories and methodologies of ‘Time and Motion Study’, an idea introduced by Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915), in the US in 1911.67 Presented as a form of ‘scientific management’ widely referred to as ‘Taylorism’, this system ensured that every aspect of a task was broken down into an individual action. The time that each action took to complete was then measured and recorded with a stop-watch. When the actions of several workers were measured, an average time for the production task could be calculated, providing the basis for the settings of each machine in a production line.68 Taylor's original approach was later adapted by his student Frank Bunker Gilbreth (1868–1924) to include the filming of actions by motion camera, and it was this system that was widely adopted in British factories throughout the 1950s.69 A founding member of the Society for the Promotion of Scientific Management, Gilbreth and his wife Lillian (1878–1972) developed an adaptation of Taylorism that attempted to encompass the human element as well as the technical. Gilbreth devised a technique of work measurement called ‘micro-motion study’, employing a motion picture camera to record the performance of a worker on a job, with a clock calibrated in hundredths of a minute placed in viewing range.70 This technique enabled an analysis of the motions, time and condition surrounding the job. The operating speed of the automated production lines would subsequently be set at the ‘Standard Time’ pace identified by Time and Motion consultants.

In his study of Taylorism and scientific management in the inter-war period, Rabinbach has noted that, whilst embraced by industrialists seeking ways of increasing individual worker efficiency, Taylor's system was criticized by those who warned that it jeopardized the health and safety of workers through a blatant disregard for workers' health and well-being. He has particularly highlighted French opposition to the system, where the approach was condemned by trade union leaders as ‘ferocious’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘the organisation of exhaustion’.71 He has also argued that Taylor's system shifted effective control from the shop floor to management, a development that had significant implications for worker health.72

Historical analysis of Taylorism in the post-war period validates this conclusion. Studies have focused on the application of these strategies predominantly in the context of the Ford Motor Company, an adaptation referred to as ‘Fordism’. Studies have emphasized the ways in which ‘Fordism’ became synonymous with a management approach based on surveillance, supervision and discipline, particularly in consideration of the establishment of a new British factory at Halewood, Merseyside, in 1963.73 Authoritarian surveillance, together with the intensification of productivity through accelerated processes and increased competition, heightened physiological and psychological pressure on workers, reinforcing the potential for physical, mental and emotional problems. Whilst the application of scientific management at Ford was, as historians acknowledge, an exceptional case within British industry, it served to provide a model for manufacturing efficiency that other companies sought to emulate. Consequently, Time and Motion practices were adopted across many different industries in Britain in the years immediately following the Second World War.

The widespread adoption of Time and Motion Study methodologies meant that many production line workers were carrying out specific tasks at a constant speed that was dependant on a range of variable factors, such as the targets of a particular factory or department, the demands of specific customer orders, the level of urgency of completion of orders or the judgements of individual foremen or supervisors. The necessity for workers to keep pace with pre-set production lines resulted in both physical and emotional problems. Physical strain could occur, for example, from the repetitive nature of the task. One movement might have to be repeated several thousand times in each shift, causing problems with repetitive strain injuries and muscle pain, particularly in the hands, arms, neck and shoulders. Physical pain was exacerbated in instances where operators were new to specific tasks or where established tasks were altered. Contemporary sociological surveys of production line work illustrated these problems. One operator recalled the unrelenting nature of this type of work:

I was completely exhausted. I had terrible pains in my neck and back, and found it hard to keep up with the speed of the line – but the trays kept coming so I just had to carry on.74

Problems arose particularly in situations where the calculations produced by Time and Motion Study experts severely underestimated the time that workers would take to carry out tasks effectively. An indication of the emotional pressure arising from this type of problem was presented by the Joint Shop Stewards' Committee at the Ford Motor Company in 1962:

An estimated timing is laid out before a new model is built and as the time allowed is too short there is constant pressure by the company to get the man to do the job in the estimated time. A man may be told that he should do a job in two minutes when in fact he needs five minutes. Then the company will continually ‘chase up’ to get the job done in two minutes.75

Conscientious employers built in specific periods of time to allow for certain necessary actions outside of the immediate production demands. At Somerset shoe manufacturer C. & J. Clark, a pioneering advocate of Time and Motion Study in Britain from 1946 onwards, additional allowance was built into the ‘Standard Rate’ to cover two ten minute periods for ‘attention to personal needs, fatigue and numerous small happenings such as waiting for work, minor machine breakdowns, obtaining instructions and repairing faults’.76 However, accounts from other factories indicate that this allowance time was not always included. In setting out his vision for Time and Motion practice at Ford, Henry Ford stated in 1922 that ‘a man must have every second necessary, but not a single unnecessary second’.77 This view appeared to frame the approaches of some employers in the post-war period, with one worker on a car component line recalling :

We couldn't do the things you would normally not think twice about, like blowing your nose or flicking hair out of your eye; that cost valuable seconds and no time was allowed for it … If you couldn't keep up with the line, you were out.78

Problems arising from working to controlled speeds were highlighted in the annual report of the Chief Inspector of Factories in 1963, which stated that: ‘When fatigue does occur in persons working at their own speed, a simple deterioration of performance occurs, but in work at controlled speeds, hurried actions and judgements result, quickly leading to a disruption of performance’.79 He went on to highlight the link between control and mental health, observing that ‘one example of the latter might be over-activity exhibited by individuals who find they cannot control a situation, or who anticipate that they will not be able to control it. As fatigue develops, over activity may be replaced by inertia’.80

One of the key problems with Time and Motion Study was that the implementation of timings and calculations was open to abuse by employers. These occurrences are illustrated in disputes over ‘speed-up’. Machines would be set at an agreed rate at the beginning of a shift but the speed would be increased as the shift progressed. Workers at Ford's Dagenham factory, for example, highlighted the way in which the managers would increase the workload on the line by ‘gradually increasing the line speed with more cars going down per hour without any increase in the labour force’.81 This problem was also noted in a paper on Time and Motion Study commissioned by the Trades Unions' Congress (TUC) in 1949. It stated that ‘to many union members the terms are synonymous with “speed-up” and involve further breaking down of craft and “inhuman standardization”’.82

The mental and emotional stress arising from ‘speed-up’ was most clearly demonstrated in Hew Beynon's sociological survey of workers at Ford's Halewood Factory conducted in the late 1960s. Interviewing workers about their experience of controlled production lines, Beynon's study emphasized an extreme lack of consideration for the physical and mental well-being of workers by the Halewood management. One worker recalled, for example, the refusal of managers to stop the line if a worker was injured or taken ill:

They wouldn't stop the fucking line. You could be dying and they wouldn't stop it. If someone was hurt the first thing the supervisor thought about was filling the job. He'd start doing the work before he made sure the bloke was all right. I tell you he could have been dying and they wouldn't have bothered.83

The reluctance to stop the line in these circumstances is also indicative of the high levels of pressure within management hierarchies to meet production targets. Beynon provides the most graphic example of the ways in which the application of Time and Motion Study was taken to extreme at Halewood, as one worker recalled the refusal of management to stop the line after a worker had suffered a heart attack:

He collapsed … y' know flat on the floor. His face was an awful grey colour. We all rushed round him like and the buzzer went. The line started. The foreman came running across shouting ‘get to work … get on the line’. And there we were sticking things on the cars and he was lying there. He must have been lying there ten minutes … dead.84

Beynon's study provided a controversial account of the application of scientific management practices at Ford and was criticized at the time of its initial publication as being biased towards the militant trade unions.85 Whilst there is clearly scope for further comparative studies into worker experience at Ford and other companies to gain a more balanced view of the implementation of Time and Motion Study methodologies, archival evidence indicates that significant anxieties arose from the anticipation of Time and Motion Study. Concerns are evident in letters sent to the TUC in the late 1940s from union representatives working in industries where these methods were being newly introduced. One letter from the Leicester and District Trades Council urged the TUC to ‘take firm action against the introduction of Time and Motion methods in industry … as it can be very detrimental to the operatives concerned’.86 Recognizing the inevitability of the adoption of motion study throughout industry, the TUC sought a greater understanding of the methods, commissioning, in 1949, surveys by the Work Measurement Research Unit at the University of Birmingham and the National Production Advisory Council.87 International conferences on work study and automation were also held at Transport House, London, in November 1954 and May 1956. The TUC concluded that ‘much of the hostility to motion and time study is not directed to the methods themselves, but to the ways in which they have been used’.88 Consequently, a series of training courses for shop stewards was instigated to familiarize them with the methodologies, thus placing them in a stronger position for negotiations with management over speed rates.89 Confident that this would enable a degree of joint control, the TUC subsequently urged their members to co-operate with the process and support employers wishing to implement the systems.

Sources indicate, however, that neither the employers nor the unions gave any consideration to the possible negative impact on health of Time and Motion Studies, a position that was also evident in government-funded studies. Whilst accepting that ‘automation is likely to create serious problems’, a DSIR report on Automation published in 1956 emphasized the potential benefits of automation and failed to make any specific reference to health.90 For employers, the overwhelming argument in favour of automation was that it frequently resulted in new wage structures, predominantly payment by piece-work, which replaced existing systems of payment by hourly rate.91 Employers argued that automation therefore presented an unprecedented opportunity for workers to increase their earning potential, whilst also benefitting from reduced working hours. Tolliday has highlighted the successful role of incentivized piece-rates in ensuring worker co-operation and efficient continuous production throughout the 1950s and 60s.92 However, the balance between pay and working conditions was a delicate one which could be easily upset by changes implemented by management through Time and Motion Study.

Despite the incentive of greater earning potential and the support of the trade unions, Time and Motion Study continued to be regarded with suspicion by the workforce in many factories and experts employed to assess and implement the timings were viewed as feared agents of the management, perceived by operatives as being ‘on the other side’.93 At Clarks's factory in Street, Somerset, the management was forced to concede in 1958 that the Motion Study Department was ‘the most maligned department in the organisation’.94 A series of articles promoting the department appeared in the company's staff magazine, Clarks Courier, in an attempt to improve the tense relationship between the ‘motion study men’ and the workers.95 In addition, evidence from other factories indicates the emergence of worker agency in the development of strategies to mitigate the unrelenting demands of the assembly lines and to regain some degree of personal control. Common ploys were for operators to cause mechanical breakdowns on the lines so that additional rest periods could be taken whilst the machines were repaired.96 Workers at Ford's Dagenham factory revealed further strategies:

When new machinery is being brought into operation, and a section of the plant is speeded up, workers respond by sending half-finished cars down the line and refusing to co-operate in the speed-up or in getting the machine to work properly.97

The strategies of worker sabotage recorded in sociological studies imply that tensions between management and production workers around the implementation of Time and Motions Study played a more significant role in the decline of British industry in the second half of the twentieth century than has been previously acknowledged. Historical analysis of post-war British industrial decline indicates that, by the 1970s, employers had been unable to maintain direct control over the production processes on the shop floor.98 There is scope for further historical analysis and comparative studies to gain greater insight into the experiences of individual workers subject to these methodologies and to the role played by the psychosocial changes arising from automation in the breakdown of industrial relations in this later period.


The implications of automated production processes for physical, mental and emotional health were clearly a cause of major concern throughout Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. Doctors focusing on the psychosocial health of the nation raised awareness of a range of potential factors that could have significant repercussions on worker health. They particularly emphasized factors that could impact on mental and psychological health, shifting concerns away from the emphasis on physical factors and issues of physiological fatigue which had dominated the inter-war period. The instigation of Time and Motion Study practices accompanying automation had the potential to aid both the working conditions and earning potential of industrial workers, but the positive effects of scientific management greatly depended on the maintenance of a delicate balance between the demands of economic production targets and the physical abilities, limitations and emotional needs of individual operatives.

The conflicting nature of the evidence and the polarized opinions of scientists and medical professionals presented industrial employers with the opportunity to ignore the health implications of automated processes and draw on a range of scientifically validated studies and opinions which concluded that ‘there is little evidence that automation really causes ill-health’.99 They were consequently able to exploit the positive features of automation presented in these studies, notably, the potential for relieving the ‘drudgery’ and physical demands of industrial tasks and the opportunity for greater earning potential presented by new wage systems based around ‘piece-work’. This position ignored a wealth of evidence which suggested that, far from providing opportunities for new categories of ‘brain workers’ to sit around ‘waiting for nothing to happen’, automation presented all workers with a range of new challenges and demands which could impact significantly on physical, mental and emotional well-being. Significant reductions in the numbers of workers needed to carry out automated tasks and a transformation in the nature and level of skills required meant that workers had to be able to adapt, both physically and psychologically, to rapidly advancing technological change in ways that were historically unprecedented.

Contemporary sources suggest that the greatest levels of psychological stress and anxiety arose as much from the fear and anticipation of potential changes brought about by automation as from the reality and experience of change. Similar fears about the stress induced by the acceleration of new industrial and communication technologies were evident in the writings of the American journalist Alvin Toffler (b.1938) and others.100 Worker resistance to the widespread adoption of Time and Motion Study throughout British industry in the second half of the twentieth century therefore reflected wider social fears around the impact of modernity on everyday life at a time of immense social change, reinforcing concerns that the future nature of working life would be increasingly determined by the demands of machines and ‘the tyranny of time’.101

© Taylor & Francis 2015, © Mark Jackson 2015.

The Open Access version of this book, available at www.tandfebooks.com, has been made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives 3.0 license.

Monographs, or book chapters, which are outputs of Wellcome Trust funding have been made freely available as part of the Wellcome Trust's open access policy

Bookshelf ID: NBK436950PMID: 28661619


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