They used to say it with flowers or celebrate it with a somewhat liquid lunch. National Secretaries Week was always good for at least a token of appreciation. But the way the figures add up now, the best thing a boss can do for a secretary this week is cough up for her cardiogram.
"Stress and the Secretary" has become the hottest new syndrome on the heart circuit.
It seems that it isn't those Daring Young Women in their Dress for Success Suits who are following men doen the cardiovascular trail to ruin. Nor is it the female professionals who are winning their equal place in coronary care units.
It is powerlessness and not power that corrupts women's hearts. And clerical workers are the No. 1 victims.
In the prestigious Framingham study, Dr. Suzanne Haynes, an epidemiologist with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, found that working women as a whole have no higher rate of heart disease than do housewives. But women employed in clerical and sales occupations do. Their coronary disease rates are twice that of other women.
"This is not something to ignore," says Haynes, "since such a high percentage of women work at clerical jobs." In fact, 35 percent of all working women, or 18 million of us, hold these jobs.
When Haynes looked into their private lives, she found the women at greatest risk -- with a one-in-five chance of heart disease -- were clerical workers with blue-collar husbands and three or more children. When she looked at their work lives, she discovered that the ones who actually developed heart disease were those with non-supportive bosses who hadn't changed jobs very often and who had trouble letting their anger out.
In short, being frustrated, dead-ended, without a feeling of control over your life is bad for your health.
The irony in all the various and sundry heart statistics in that we now have a weird portrait of the Cardiovascular Fun Couple of the Office: the Type A boss and his secretary. The male heart-disease stereotype is, after all, the Type A aggressive man who who always needs to be in controll, who lives with a great sense of time urgency . . . and is likely to be a white-collar boss.
"The Type A man is trying to be in control. But give the way most business are organized, there are, in fact, few ways for them to be in control of their jobs," says Haynes. The only thing the Type A boss can be in control of is his secretary, who in turn feels . . . well you get the picture. He's not only getting heart disease; he's giving it.
Now then, as if all this weren't enough to send you out for the annual three-martini lunch, clerical workers are increasingly working for a new Type A boss: the computer.
These days fewer women are sitting in front of bosses with note pads and more are sitting in front of visual display terminals. Word processors, data processors, microprocessors -- these are the demanding, time-conscious, new automatons of automation. According to the IBM Word Processing Plan, "In the office of 1985 . . . there are no secretaries." Just pools of processors.
There is nothing intrinsically evil about computers. I am writing this on a VDT, and if you try to take it away from me I will break your arm. But as Working Women, the national association of office workers put it in its release this week, automation is increasingly producing clerical jobs that are de-skilled, downgraded, dead-ended and dissatisfying.
As Karaen Nussbaum of the Cleveland office described it the office of the future may well be the factory of the past. Work on computers is often reduced to simple, repetitive, monotonous tasks. Workers are often expected to produce more for no more pay, and there are also reports of a disturbing trend to processing speed-ups and piece-rate pay, and a feeling among clerical workers that their jobs are computer-controlled.
"It's not the machine, but the way it's used by employers," says Working Women's research director, Judith Gregory. Too often, automation's most important product is stress.
Groups, like Working Women, are trying to get clerical workers to organize in what they call "a race against time" so computers will become their tools instead of their supervisors.
But in the meantime, if you are 1) a female clerical worker, 2) with a blue-collar husband, 3) with three or more children, 4) in a dead-end job, 5) without any way to express anger, 6) with a Type A boss, 7) or a Type A computer controlling your work day . . . you'd better start jogging.