Hi. My name is Paul Lenz. The Office Hostages project was inspired by some of my own experiences at work (though, I must stress, my jobs for the last eight years were not part of these experiences). The aim of this site is to share some of the research behind the project, and also to elicit stories from others who may have experienced the situations described.
I first began to wonder if there were something hostage-like about the psychological relationship between employees and their employers because of something I experienced myself. In 2003 I was working in a stressful marketing job for a UK retailer. Days were a constant rush of press deadlines, sales checking, price setting and forecasting – to the extent that having put the office kettle on to make myself a cup of coffee I wouldn’t stand there waiting for it to boil, I would hustle back to my desk so as not to waste a vital two minutes, only to return once I had heard it click off.
One day I was due to meet with my boss at 2pm to review a lengthy presentation I had prepared for him to deliver. What made this day different was that I was going out for a friend’s 30th birthday dinner that evening – and as result I had told my boss that I really had to leave on time that day. On time, in this context, didn’t mean my contracted finishing time of 5.30pm, rather 6.30pm – much earlier than I would normally leave. Unfortunately my boss got caught up with other things and so we didn’t end up sitting down to review the presentation until 6.00pm. Over the course of the next two hours we went through the work in detail, and I had a comprehensive list of tweaks and changes that needed making. It was now 8.00pm – the time I was due to be sitting down for dinner with my friend on the other side of London.
“Okay, I think that’s everything,” said my boss. “If you can make those changes then let’s sit down again in hour to give it a final review.”
I didn’t want to say no. I didn’t think I could say no. But I was already feeling terrible about how late I was. I thought quickly.
“As it is getting late now, and I do have something I really can’t miss, how about I work on it late on tonight, email it over to you then we can catch up again at 7.30 tomorrow morning?” I suggested, nervously.
My boss pondered this for a moment.
“Sure, that should be fine – see you at half seven.”
I hurried back to my desk, slung my things in my bag, and rushed out to grab a bus. I arrived at the dinner more than an hour late, feeling guilty. Guilty for being late, but also guilty for having, in some way, let my boss down. I got back to my flat at about half-past midnight, worked through to 2am on the presentation and emailed it over. I grabbed a couple of hours sleep and was up again at 5.30am to make sure that I would be in the office with plenty of time for the meeting.
So far, so much just another anecdote about a crappy work experience – far from the worst I have endured, and nothing compared to what some people go through. But there was one specific thing about it which, to me, was extraordinary, and which started me on an odyssey of research into psychology, hostage-taking and work practices. When my boss agreed to my proposal to move the meeting back to the following morning I felt a feeling of pure, unalloyed gratitude towards him.
Over the course of the birthday dinner I received sympathy from my friends about my working environment, and criticism of my boss for his behaviour. Rather than agree with them, however, I found myself defending the situation. He was well intentioned, we were all under pressure, business was tough, they didn’t understand how things were.
As I sat on the top deck of the night bus riding back to my flat I couldn’t help but return to the feeling of gratitude I had felt. Sure, it could be argued that my boss’s behaviour was not unreasonable – we did work hard, he had probably forgotten that I had something on that evening – but having been reminded of that fact, and offered a perfectly good alternative it would have been completely unreasonable for him to reject it. So why did I feel so grateful towards him when he agreed to it?
I remembered that similar feelings of perverse gratitude also arose in hostage situations – the condition known as “Stockholm Syndrome”. Could what I had felt be in some way related? Or was what I had felt just a random occurrence on stressful day?
Not long afterwards I met another friend, with whom I had worked some years before, for a drink. He was in an ebullient mode, as he had just finished a large project of work.
“A really great thing happened, at the end of it my boss gave me a £500 gift voucher to say ‘Thank you’ for all the extra hours that I had put in. It was a really lovely gesture, he didn’t have to it, very generous”.
“Did you, technically, under the terms of your contract, have to put the extra work in?” I asked
My friend hesitated.
“Well, ‘technically’, I guess not.”
“And how many extra hours did you work on this project?”
“I supposed it was probably around ten hours a week on average”.
“Over how long?”
“About a year.”
“So, about 500 hours in total?”
“Um, yes, it has got to be something like that”.
“So the ‘generous gift’ from your boss was, essentially, paying you £1 per hour for your time?”
My friend paused, and took a pull on his pint.
“Well, now that you put it like that, I’ve been screwed, haven’t I?”
My friend had, indeed, been screwed. But not only had he not realised it until I laid it out to him in such clear terms, his genuine reaction to being given a (relatively) small reward for a vast amount of unpaid overtime was to be grateful. Not just a little bit grateful, so grateful that he enthused to other people about it.
This was a very different situation to the one that I had experienced with my boss, but it seemed to me that there were clear parallels – particularly that feeling of gratitude. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something deeper happening here, something that we had both experienced, something that had, to some extent, made us feel the hostage-like Stockholm Syndrome emotions. I wanted to learn more – not simply out of intellectual curiosity, but also to better understand my own psychological relationship to work.
That was the start of a journey that has taken sixteen years – that the journey has taken so long is due the fact that, ironically, for a fair amount of that time I have worked in demanding jobs that have dominated my life. Along the way I have read hundreds of scientific papers and dozens of books. I have learned about Ford Pintos and Trojan Tacos, captive ambassadors and karoshi and many more things besides. All of this has convinced me that many – perhaps the majority – of people – are psychological captives in their workplace, and as captives they have formed perverse psychological relationships with those who hold power over them.
Over the years, other people have started to make the same connection – reassuring me that this is not simply a crackpot theory, but rather one important enough that more people should learn about.