Burning Our People Out

Let’s presume who works from where were resolved. Crystal clear, set in stone, no ambiguity. How wonderful would life be? Team/collaborative work when we are best primed for it in joyous, fun, creative and innovative meetings of psychologically safe and tight-knit teams in inspiring collaborative environments and individual work when we are mid-flow whenever and wherever suits us best. Nothing better.

But it isn’t sorted. Not by a long country mile. Not with the absurd latest statements of how WFH is “immoral” and any other of the utterly ridiculous directions this adamant desperation to save the high street has brought about. If we are to be honest though, the truth is that our hard-fought-for flexibility is under threat at a collective level but it isn’t as pressing an issue for most of us on here reading this.

Consummate professionals with active LinkedIn profiles are likely the least affected group when it comes to oppressive knee-jerk reactions of unthinking organisations that demand a return to micromanagement and line-of-sight. We have had many many years of having to juggle life and work and we know that at the end of the day, all that really counts is doing good work whenever we manage to fit it, being good to ourselves and others and honouring our professional commitments.

We know that no schedule will ever be able to fit our insane collection of todo’s and the unique intersection of personal and professional backlogs so we long stopped expecting it all to fit and learned flexibility is inbuilt not chosen. But we’re the lucky ones, the privileged ones. The ones who have either overt or covert liberty.

And if we find ourselves in roles that wouldn’t let us hold all our balls in the air we’d much rather change jobs than drop any.

But what about everyone else?

If you looked around you, at your teams, where is the discomfort? Are they depressed? Anxious? Dreading any interaction with management? Closed off? Incommunicative? Tight-lipped about projects or talks? Refraining from saying the things they really want to say? Do any of them feel the walls are closing in on them and they are drowning in work and lack of support?

Do you know? You don’t. We don’t. No one does. With 2 in 3 of us having some type of mental health challenges to contend with, how many of these voices have you heard publicly in your enterprise? Do you know who ever suffered from burnout? Who had to take time off? Who is in therapy or has a coach (hint: should be everyone)?

We don’t know. And we don’t investigate. The most insidious part of our work lives is the lack of willingness to ask each other an interested and genuine “No, but how are you REALLY doing?” once served with the eternal automated response of “fine” when asked how they are doing. Even the tightest of teams have some relatively disenfranchised members and keeping emotional contact at a surface level is not going to change that. Few will be evidently segregated, most will seem relatively engaged and serve all the platitudes and cliches they can muster while willing themselves through team interactions they do not enjoy with a team they feel they have to co-exist with not grow and create with. They aren’t “in a team” but in a structure. Not a team but a workgroup. Not a family but a job. Not a fun, exciting place to learn but a series of tasks they will be micromanaged on. Not a place of renewing purpose and giving substance to human interactions but a reporting process. Suffering individual contributors may show up to meetings and be written under the same team chapter but they are certainly not a real part of the team. Or even know what it feels to genuinely have that.

And we hide behind the taboo of “professionalism” and do not care. Or certainly, do not care enough.

We let people be isolated and unhappy in our midst and ignore it. We ask how wise it is to in-build more rest, mindfulness and protected times to do the HumanWork? And how much it would cost? Whether it is worth it. An insane exploration -no one assumes 100% work hours utilisation and the links between well-being and high performance are very well documented so no need to wonder but act to create a better environment.

Is it really that simple to make big changes? It is. Choose your NorthStar such as “Always do the People work and lower your HumanDebt” and it will translate into mental health betterment through a clean culture of performance based on Google’s Aristotle findings coupled with principles of growing generative cultures by changing team behaviours including increasing Psychological Safety and empowering teams to autonomously steer themselves towards better interactions, more sincerity, more intimate knowledge of each others’s character, challenges, real life and true feelings. Or like I said before, let me do it.

The longer we take to land the need for the HumanWork the longer we’ll be oblivious to people’s active but hidden suffering. It will not be till we have cleaned up some of the HumanDebt and have reversed the unexamined emotions-are-banned-at-work taboo that we can hope to make the progress our technology, humans and vision deserve.

Related: How To Create a Unicorn Culture in Under a Year