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Book Review: “Dying for a Paycheck”

Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer provides insight on workplace toxicity, employee wellbeing

With the inception of the #MeToo movement, spotlighting toxicity in the workplace has become a prevalent feature of public discourse. The nation’s newly-acquired lens on how common occupational instability has become made the recent release of Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book “Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance — and What We Can Do About It” both timely and necessary.

In the book, Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, discusses how toxic tactics used to maximize a company’s profits, such as low wages, long hours and minimal health care benefits, are ineffective. Alternatively, Pfeffer argues, implementing reforms to provide a healthier working environment for employees will benefit the company as well. Pfeffer successfully delivers this message in a dense and academic format.

When I first began reading the book, I thought its message was over-simplified and too optimistic — stress is a normal part of the workplace, after all. However, after reading on I realized that Pfeffer seeks to combat that very mindset. High pressure and negative health consequences are normalized in the workplace, and as Pfeffer notes, environmental sustainability prioritized over the health of employees, with companies taking more extensive measures to protect their surroundings than the people within them.

Pfeffer then highlights ways for companies to encourage human sustainability and reemphasize employee wellbeing. Methods listed include publicizing and praising the companies that do so, measuring employee health and reducing cost shifting.

“Dying for a Paycheck” is incredibly well-researched. Pfeffer includes specific stories and figures drawn from a range of companies, from Aetna to General Electric to Zillow Group. The book presents a robust drove of statistics and anecdotes to fortify each point. For example, In a subsection just over 300 words detailing aspects of the work environment, Pfeffer includes seven statistics, references, and anecdotes. Even these details are put under the microscope: there are 11 sub-sections alone concerning the effects of layoffs on the well-being of employees and companies.

The volume of information in  “Dying for a Paycheck” gives it its ethos, but also makes it a dense read. For me, it was difficult to digest. Some chapters seemed to wear out points I felt were already well fleshed out in the introduction. Certain phrases were repeated, in varying forms, throughout the book, such as something along the lines of, “There doesn’t need to be a trade-off between employee health and company profit,” which I felt like I had read at least fifteen times.  

“Dying for a Paycheck” is geared towards those who work at the managing levels of companies, but nevertheless, it could be a good read for someone who enjoys reading heavy statistic-packed articles and academic journals. Personally, I sometimes found myself struggling to stay focused and recall the main point of a given section because of the redundancy of both the ideas and wording. My lack of engagement, however, could be due to my lack of experience working in a high-pressure environment.

“Dying for a Paycheck” is well-structured and deeply-researched, showing that employee wellbeing and the company’s success are not mutually exclusive.

Contact Sarah Feng at sarahfeng55 ‘at’ gmail.com

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