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What Quaker companies can teach us about well-being-at-work

Henry-RowntreeMy great-great-great grandfather, a York Quaker called Henry Isaac Rowntree (that’s him on the left), set up Rowntree’s chocolate company in York in 1862. He was an amiable young man, ‘perhaps the only Rowntree with a sense of humour’ according to one historian. He had a parrot who liked to shout obscenities from under the table, much to the consternation of the Quaker elders when they visited. Henry loved adult education and journalism, but family members feared he knew ‘next to nothing about business’.

This led to him not being invited to be a partner at the family grocery business, so instead he bought a cocoa company in York.  A few years later, the young cocoa company was in financial difficulties. Bankruptcy was the height of shame in the Quakers – indeed, you were ejected from the church for it – so Henry’s older brother, Joseph, came to help him run it. Joseph was much more sensible and meticulous, and public demand for cocoa powder and chocolate was beginning to take off.

By the 1940s, Rowntree’s had become one of the biggest confectioners in the world, making well-known brands like Aero, Rolos, Kit-Kat, Polo, Black Magic, and Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles. Alas it was sold to Nestle in 1988, and Joseph had already given away all the money he made to his charitable trusts, so distant descendants inherited not so much as a packet of Smarties.

Peter Cheese of the CIPD talking about Rowntree's
Peter Cheese of the CIPD talking about Rowntree’s

Nonetheless, Rowntree’s are still relevant to my interests because the company was a pioneer in adult education, and well-being-at-work. In fact, when I went to a conference on well-being-at-work, organised by Robertson Cooper last year, the first speaker began his keynote with a slide of the Rowntree’s factory. So what can the example of Rowntree’s tell us about well-being-at-work?

1) Rowntree’s made worker well-being a priority 

Rowntree’s, like its Quaker rival Cadbury’s, was run in a spirit of industrial paternalism. The workers were treated not as mere cogs in a machine, but as characters to be developed (and souls to be saved). Rowntree’s was one of the first companies to have dedicated ‘welfare officers’ – what today we’d call human resources managers – whose job was to look after the well-being and moral character of the young and typically-unmarried male and female workers. There was also a medical officer, regular medical and dental examinations, and company public health campaigns against the evils of tobacco and booze.

The women's canteen at Rowntree
The women’s canteen at Rowntree

As the company grew to a staff of 4,000 or so, Joseph Rowntree was keen to make sure it was still ‘united by a common purpose’. To that end he introduced one of the first in-house company magazines, as well as group-bonding concerts, theatricals, meals together and field trips. One trip involved sending the workers on a walk across the Yorkshire dales. Unfortunately it rained, the workers repaired to a nearby pub, and after an afternoon’s intensive drinking, the police had to be called to eject them.

Historical accounts, like this history of Rowntree female employees, suggest workers enjoyed working at the firm

The Rowntree’s also supported workers’ education through libraries, discussion groups, the Yorkshire philosophical society, and through a network of adult schools. Quakers played the leading role in the establishment of adult education at the end of the 19th century – by 1900 there were 350 adult schools around the UK, with 45,000 pupils, of which two-thirds were at schools run by Quakers. Many Rowntree family members were actively involved in setting up and teaching in adult schools.

Some of the Rowntree staff lived in a ‘model village’ launched by Joseph Rowntree, called New Earswick. It was inspired by the ‘garden city’ designs of Ebenezer Howard, with worker cottages, a village green, and a veritable Quaker porridge of village committees – a library committee, a women’s guild, an orchestral society, a village council, a men’s social club, a musical society etc etc etc. It’s still going.

Historical records suggest that, to a large extent, Rowntree employees enjoyed working there, forged good relationships, and were happy – indeed, Rowntree women were famous for singing at work, as this short film from 1932 shows.

2) This sort of Quaker industrial paternalism was potentially patronising and illiberal

However, the strong emphasis on worker welfare could potentially be creepy – the company poking its nose in your inner life. Fry’s Chocolates, for example (another Quaker company), held an annual workers prayer service, which Joseph Fry said  was ‘often a means of observing their conduct and checking any tendency to impropriety’. The Rowntree’s welfare officers, known as ‘overseers’, were also sometimes resented (‘she sits up there like the Queen of Sheba’, one worker complained).

Workers might well feel that what they did in their own time was their own business, and that the imposition of Quaker ethics on them was an infringement of their own religious liberties. So what if they drank in their own time? Should that be a cause for sacking, as it was at Fry’s? When did religious non-conformism become so conformist?

The Quaker emphasis on character and do-gooding could be annoying and patronising, as one poem showed:

Take a dozen Quakers, be sure they’re sweet and pink
Add one discussion programme, to make the people think
…Garnish with compassion – just a touch will do
Serve with deep humility your philanthropic stew

A modern equivalent of Rowntree’s focus on worker-welfare might be something like the American shoe company Zappo’s, which also is something of a personality cult of its CEO, Tony Hsieh, and also has a strong emphasis on employee well-being. Reading Hsieh’s smug and self-congratulatory comic book, Delivering Happiness, makes me feel queasy – Zappo’s sounds like a bit of a happiness police state.

It’s important, then, for companies to think about how to balance a strong collective ethos with autonomy, how to create a culture that encourages people to be individuals rather than clones, how to create room for dissent and satire, and how to make sure their well-being programme doesn’t feel forced, patronising, conformist. or a form of illiberal surveillance.

Saracens rugby club is an interesting example here – its ethos was also inspired by a strong Christian emphasis on the well-being and personal development of its staff and players, but manages to find a way to promote this without being too patronising, and with room for dissent. Staff and players are co-creators of the culture, rather than merely automatons to be programmed.

3) Ethical capitalism always has its internal tensions

The Quakers helped to set up some of the best British companies – Rowntree’s, Cadbury’s, Barclays, Lloyds, Clarks, Friends Provident – most of which strived to be not just profitable but ethical. They were family-owned, meaning they could pursue their own values rather than trying to please distant shareholders. They were often run as quasi-mutuals, ‘as a kind of partnership between masters and men, uniting their labour for a common end’, as Joseph Rowntree put it.

In all of this, perhaps there are lessons for our own time, when corporations have come to be seen as psychopathic, and when Barclays and Lloyds have become by-words for dodgy dealing (indeed, Barclays’ CEO, Anthony Jenkins, recently suggested the firm needed to remember its Quaker history).

However, Quaker capitalism always had its internal contradictions and tensions.

Quakers blossomed in business partly because their religious non-conformism meant that historically they were unable to go into other careers like politics, partly because they had amazing networks of trust between themselves, and partly because their austere Puritanism made them very good at meticulous book-keeping and rational management. But, as Max Weber explored in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, there was a paradox in directing this Puritan zeal towards the accumulation of capital.

An advert for Aero’s Bubbles. Not entirely Quaker.

Quaker businessmen had a constant struggle to try and balance their service both to God and to mammon. For example, Rowntree’s initially rejected advertising as insincere and duplicitous, but quickly realised they had to embrace it to compete. Both Rowntree’s and Cadbury’s used their ethical principles as a form of advertising, which works from a marketing point of view but is not really in accord with the Gospels. They also spied on each other to try and get each other’s recipes – this was the inspiration for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They colluded and set prices when it suited them. Both families made their fortunes by profiting on our growing addiction to sugar – which was originally intended to wean the nation off alcohol but has become its own public health menace.

And the family-ownership model depended on having family members with the genius for business. The Rowntree heirs became increasingly interested in different things, so the company appointed its first non-Rowntree chairman in the 1930s – George Harris, my great-grandfather, who married into the family. He wasn’t a Quaker and had little time for their Puritan do-goodiness. He was more inspired by the American Forrest Mars, who once told his employees: ‘I am a religious man…I pray for Milky Way, I pray for Snickers…Profit is our sole objective.’ Harris used marketing research to launch the very un-Quaker ‘Black Magic’, advertised as a tool for seduction!

Black Magic, a tool for seduction
Black Magic, a tool for seduction

4) So what we can take from Quakernomics today? 

– Try to run companies as mutual enterprises, by facilitating discussions, suggestions and group activities with all levels of the company. Strive for fair pay for all levels of the company, and make sure your suppliers’ values are aligned with your own.

– Provide opportunities for employees to broaden their minds, like Rowntree’s adult schools, the Google Campus, or the Saracens personal development programme.

– Support employees’ well-being through online and one-to-one advice, which should be entirely confidential rather than a means to spy on staff. Connect well-being services both to broader adult education (like Google’s Search Inside Yourself course) and to wider philanthropy and CSR.

– Provide opportunities for employees to pursue philanthropic activities and to feel they are working for a company with a moral mission.

– Provide opportunities for dissent, for disagreement, for satire and internal criticism – to make sure a strong collective ethos doesn’t turn into a cult!

– Explore new models of ownership which don’t make the company a slave to short-term shareholders.

–  Combine moral mission with empirical rigour – what works, both for the company and for employee well-being? What sort of philanthropy or social reforms genuinely work, rather than simply making the giver feel good? Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree were both more than mere do-gooders. They were scientific in their do-gooding.

– Finally, a commitment to employee well-being is entirely in line with a commitment to business excellence, although companies can expect some dilemmas and tough decisions along the way. The moral mission needs to be led  by CEOs at the top, rather than Corporate Social Responsibility reps in the middle.

When going to a New Age orgy, be careful who you take home

Last weekend I had a glimpse of the future. I spoke at a New Age festival in Holland, a country where just 39% of people belong to a religion. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey released this week, that’s where we’re heading too. Thirty years ago, 68% of Brits said they belonged to a religion. Now it’s just 52%, of which less than half are Anglican. We are about to become a post-religious society. So what does that look like?

Well, a post-religious society is not the same as a secular materialist society. The festival I went to was run by Happinez magazine, which caters to the ‘spiritual but not religious / wellness / Mind Body Spirit’ market. That demographic is apparently booming in Holland – Happinez magazine is doing very well, and the festival attracted thousands.

It was held in a disused armoury in the fields outside of Utrecht. You crossed a bridge, passed the barbed wire and cannons, and suddenly you’re in a New Age Disneyland. Initially, the festival seems very Buddhist – you walk through a tunnel lined with Buddha statues, and there’s a Buddha on every stage behind me when I speak. Yet I don’t think many people there would call themselves Buddhist (only 1% of the Dutch population does).

Instead, alongside the forest of Buddhas, you can find many different spiritual philosophies- there is a yoga stage above a lake, there are talks on guardian angels, there is crystal healing, Reiki, astrology, NLP, vegetarianism, aura photography, gong healing. The thinking here is not ‘either / or’ but ‘both / and’. Everything is thrown in together.

It’s easy to criticize the New Age from a Christian perspective, and many Christians do. It’s just a spiritual pick n’ mix buffet, some might say. Maybe so. But if there is a free market in spirituality, that, surely, is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. It was Luther who challenged the central authority of the Church and turned instead to his own inner conscience. Luther invented the New Age, and no sooner had he done so than a bewildering forest of different churches sprouted (there are now 30,000 Christian denominations).

Another Christian criticism of the New Age is that it’s selfish. It’s obsessed with wellness, happiness, personal flourishing. It ends up in one long pampering session, with scented candles and healing oils. A far cry from St Simeon the Stylite and the other ascetics of Christianity, who understood that this life is a vale of tears and happiness is only possible in the after-life.

And yet…modern Christianity is not so far from the New Age in its focus on health and wellness. Today the fastest-growing denomination in global Christianity is Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism, which arose in the early 20th century in the US, out of a culture that was generally obsessed with wellness and the healing power of the mind. This obsession led to late-19th-century Christian healing movements like Christian Science and the Seventh-Day Adventists (including John Harvey Kellogg, wonderfully depicted in The Road to Wellville), and also to more New Age movements like Mind Cure and New Thought. Pentecostalism, with its belief in hands-on healing, arose around the same time as a similar wellness movement, and has a similarly positive attitude to the body. For all these movements, closeness to God is expected to lead to success, happiness and wellness here on Earth, as well as in the afterlife.

Another Christian criticism of the New Age is that it’s self-absorbed. It’s an expression of Romantic individualism, which began as the philosophy of a few Bohemian intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries before becoming the ruling philosophy of an entire generation in the 1960s. According to this philosophy, life is a search for the ‘real me’, for personal authenticity and creativity, which comes before anything else – family, community, tradition, God.

Yet, again, modern Christianity is not so separate from this wider culture of expressive individualism. It’s also often a search for self-acceptance (through the acceptance of God), an attempt to free oneself from the baggage of the past, to free your creative spirit. Notice to what extent young Christians are into the ‘authentic folk’ of bands like Mumford & Sons, or the Lumineers. It’s a sort of hipster Christianity, all about finding the real, true, creative, fulfilled you. There’s a similar sense that personal experience always trumps rules and written authorities. It’s all about what ‘resonates’.

But there are obvious differences between Christianity and the New Age too. The New Age is much more Romantic about sex, much less uptight about sexual experimentation, sex before marriage, same-sex relationships. It’s also more Romantic about drugs, more hip to the idea that some drugs can induce spiritual or at least creative experiences. It’s more Romantic in its veneration for nature, for environmental justice, for the welfare of other animals. There’s not much concern for animal welfare in the Bible. And it’s more Romantic – more Rousseau-esque – in its rejection of western traditions and veneration of developing-world cultures, whether that be Native American chiefs or Amazonian shamans.

A shamanic workshop run by Moonfeather:

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the New Age is its hatred of authority. This may be a product of the Reformation, but the New Age has taken it to an extreme. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials is a perfect expression of the New Age spirit – the central Authority of the church is evil, and is opposed by a loose alliance of witches and shamans. Shamanism is particularly popular with New Agers, because it has no organization, no hierarchy, no authorities or even scriptures, nothing to which you must submit your will.

Yet sometimes the naive rejection of western power structures (ie churches) can lead to people becoming even more subjected under new religious movements. Nothing a white European male tells you could possibly be true, yet somehow, if an Indian guru like Osho tells you not to think but to obey his commands unquestioningly, that’s perfectly acceptable.

And the flipside of this Baby-Boomer horror of authority, this refusal to submit your will to any power structures, is loneliness. You are out there on your own, trying to figure everything out for yourself, with no comrades committed to the same path to encourage you on. And this lack of organizational structure perhaps explains the New Age movement’s lack of philanthropy and charitable activity. Any philanthropic activity – like opposing slavery, for example – takes organization. But organization means power structures, and power structures are corrupt.

Perhaps the old Christian criticism that the New Age is a spiritual marketplace is not so far from the truth. The most striking thing about the Happinez festival is the sea of stands selling endless trinkets, candles, crystals, water-purifiers, icons, statues, birth-charts, yoga mats, prayer-beads, weekend retreats. And what are the ‘heroes’ of the New Age – Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Anthony Robbins, Rhonda Byrne – if not multi-million-dollar corporations? You can hear the cash-tills ring with each new spiritual insight. The 11 truths of the Celestine Prophecy. Ka-ching! The 12th insight of the Celestine Prophecy. Ka-Ching again! Conversations with God. Ka-ching! Further Conversations with God. Ka-ching again! Keep talking, God, this is a profitable conversation.

One of the many stands selling trinkets at the Happinez festival

One big thing, perhaps, the New Age got right. And that is the sense that there is beauty and wisdom in other spiritual traditions, Christianity does not have a monopoly on God and (shock horror) not all non-Christians are necessarily going to Hell. I know that saying this means I’m not a proper Christian, and yet I find hope in the words of Pope Francis, in his letter to atheists published this week, where he says ‘each of us finds the truth and expresses it from our own history and culture , from the situation in which we live…The truth being ultimately one with love, it requires humility and openness to be sought, welcomed and expressed’. I believe Christ embodied that love, and to follow Christ is to try to love God and one another. That, to me, means some Muslims, Jews, Hindus and atheists might be better followers of Christ than a particularly fulminating Christian.

Nonetheless, the risk of seeing the wisdom in every spiritual tradition is that you end up committing to none of them. The New Age can become like a swingers’ orgy, where you have a fling with everyone but never commit to anyone. As a result, you never reach the intimacy and love that comes from long-term commitment.

And, like at any orgy, you need to be careful who you go home with. The Christian warning against spiritual experimentation and dabbling in the occult might seem particularly paranoid and primitive to us. What’s a bit of Ouija between friends! You only had to look at the assorted peddlers of the occult to realise they were not in possession of great demonic power. Yet let us speculate, for a moment, that we’re not alone in the multiverses, that there are many other beings out there, not all of which necessarily wish us well. If that’s the case, there’s something to be said for being a little careful about who we go home with at the orgy.