The Human Work and the Water Bottle

A term I found blood curling was doing the rounds last week - “emotional support water bottle”. If it had been some marketing ploy from a water company wanting to capitalise on the self-care trend I would understand it. Still, on closer inspection, it isn’t any one type of bottle or brand nor does it have any real discerning qualities aside from the nomenclature and people’s willingness to use the denomination. Sure, some may have a certain colour or a cosy someone’s grandma knitted so the grandson remembers her at work, but for the most part, they are just water bottles and the fact that anyone ever thought to attach “emotional support” to them and, furthermore, that it stuck and it has tens of thousands views and a bevvy of hashtags is a sad indication of what little we expect from our work lives.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the emotional support water bottle is a clear and painful symbol of our collective, monumental amounts of HumanDebt. If we hadn’t had this debt, then the basic human right need for hydration wouldn’t become a sign of self-care. 

Having a water bottle and having the accountability, care and respect to keep yourself healthy should never be seen as anything extraordinary. What’s next? “Life-reaffirming coffees?”, “Contemplative-shoulder-stretches?” or is it“Soul-soothing 3-mins bathroom breaks”?! 

Maybe we should just brand breathing as an approved act of self-care and start being thankful we are allowed to do it at work. “My company did away with the pool table but instead we are allowed to take up to fifteen restorative breaths per minute #BreathingAtWork #EmployeeBranding #Happiness”

The other reason why this grated me is how it highlights the extreme gap between where we are and where we ought to be when it comes to employees and their work lives. Where we need to be is a place of absolute flexibility, accountability, purpose, passion, and emotional investment and the work that goes along with it ought to be recognised and remunerated. A world where employees are not nickel and dime on their every waking hour but one where they are given the conditions to thrive in psychologically safe teams that are mostly in flow. A world where how happy employees are is so clearly and intensely connected to the bottom line that ignoring it is negligence and too risky to attempt. Not a world where H2O gets a fluffy word label in front of it and counts as something of value. 

So to anyone rushing to order some more company-branded water bottles that they add the hashtag too and mark that in their OKRs as the strike of genius that will half their HumanDebt - I have bad news. Even if the emotional support water bottle wasn’t such a shockingly ridiculous idea and instead it had any intrinsic value then it would still never move the needle. There are no shortcuts, no hacks, no ways to make this easier - we have much work to do in order to change attitudes and knowledge of emotions and for people to understand and change workplace behaviours and the only ones that can do that work are our people themselves which is why we need them to do the human work and we need to reward them for it. Simples, right? It’s not but getting bogged down in the water bottle idea will not get you any closer to doing the real work.  

We’ve been talking about this rewarding people for the human work piece with our clients and prospective clients for the past few weeks and thankfully, mercifully, those that already use our Dashboard regularly -aka those who have their people already do the human work habitually- are keen to find smart ways to bring that expression of effort into the ways in which they measure performance. Some are discussing how to do it (i.e. time spent discussing feelings, dynamics and team actions seems a poor indicator for how important and valuable the work is), some are trying to measure impact but whatever they settle on they will be de facto compensating people and commanding them for putting in the human work. For overcoming their bias, resistance, their mistrust, being willing to show up and put in the work, and being ready to apply themselves. 

If they find ways to show they value people spending time thinking of their emotions and the emotions of others, if they show they value them learning and bettering their abilities in this area if they start rewarding servant leadership and teams creating wellness together then they will be winning and they will be future proof. A question of risk really because any enterprise that thinks it can thrive -or even survive- while ignoring its HumanDebt is sorely mistaken. 

In the middle of our EQ and leadership crisis in the workplace, bottles are not the answer. Not of any kind and certainly not those containing water. 

Related: Burnout and Impostor Syndrome for 7 Out of 10 Knowledge Workers