We all know the statistics: 1 in 4 people will face some kind of mental health challenge. It’s clear that no-one is immune to the risks of stresses and strains that events in our lives can bring to us. Both at work and in our home and family lives, stuff happens, it’s a fact. That said, it seems that as a society were caught off guard. We seem ill prepared for these challenges at a country level, and education and for a subject that’s still considered taboo in some contexts.
Everyone knows of a one friend that’s gone through burn-out, leave due to stress or a work related break down. Organisations simply are ignoring the risks or offering such weak token responses that amount to the same. Schools seem to be the pinnacle of employee burnout, with scores of seasoned staff leaving each year. I believe that work environments should be part of the solution, rather than an uncontrolled cause of the problem.
We’re not robots, machines or resources
Back in the industrial revolution, people began to be considered as mechanical parts of an organisational machine. Efficiency of factories and their people powered components got blurred on the financial ledgers with hours of work and pounds. Simplistic models were then formed that showed a relation between increasing hours of work and increasing of turnover and profit. However, it took years to legislate for limiting the number of hours that people (and children!) could be expected to work, and even longer to realise that there’s much more at play than hours and pounds.
Increasing hours and increasing pay does little to increase the productivity of and organisation. It’s a short-lived, short-sighted tactic that decreases in effectiveness over time. Some companies still cling to the belief, and prop it up with work-arounds to manage staff churn and poor engagement. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose form a better model for increasing engagement and productivity best articulated by Dan Pink. In essence it’s based on the notion that people are people rather than machines. This seemingly obvious but under supported premise is also expressed by Sir Ken Robinson, where he describes the need eduction to reform t organic individualised process rather than its current mechanical approach.
Autonomy is free and infinite, so why be stingy?
Autonomy gives people freedom to adapt. By simply providing the free and infinite resource of choice anyone can use that power to adapt and challenges comes and go. One commonly seen example of this is flexible working hours. While not universally applicable (few rules are) flexibility in hours allows people more agency over the most valuable resource anyone can posses: time. Suddenly being able to balance crisis moments at home becomes easier, you can juggle more - the same hours, just being used when they’re most needed. We’ve tried to make the process of taking leave at DEV pain-free, and that’s another stress we’ve worked on removing, as bureaucracy kills autonomy.
Sonder - a great word that tries to encapsulate the sentiment that everyone has got things going on, so be empathic. If everyone is facing challenge, the workplace flexibility isn’t about ‘making exceptions’, instead it’s the norm. It makes no sense to design organisation that can’t adapt to be flexible. So many organisations are now delivering services and constructing products with so little timing dependancy that there is no reason to be so hostile toward the need for flexibility. We need to move back toward thinking about people and not Human Resources.
Distress and Eustress
I’ve always been interested with these two words. Eustress is sometimes labelled pressure or tension, best imagined as being asked to move a mountain 10km to the right, and being handed a shovel. A huge challenge, but you know it’s possible and you have the resource to get the job done. Distress covers being faced with the same challenge, but without the shovel. You know you can’t succeed no matter how hard you try. Eustress can leave you with a sense of fulfilment or accomplishment, distress depressing hopelessness. When looking at the two scenarios, the difference in outcome is not having the challenge taken away from you, it’s having the means to control how you work through it - being supported and resourced to succeed.
Work is called work and not play because it’s not always fun, projects and changes bring challenges, and in many regards work by its nature is a source of challenge and stress. When we add in Sonder to the mix its clear challenges come form all sides. Simply measuring the pressure from work is an incomplete picture of what a person faces, and work practices need to support people beyond their remits in the workplace if you want to see is eustress rather than distress.
Ultimately workplaces that care better perform better. The better people are cared for, the more they can cope with. Not as a means to squeeze out every possible hour of work, but instead to build agility and resilience in the organisation as a whole. It’s well documented that most leave is due to stress. So the response is simply a question of assigning resource to support, not human resources.
In an age of AI powered resource management available for a few dollars, we need to wield the power we have not to optimise what we can get from people, but what we can give them.
I know that while writing this I’ve likely used language I’ll come to regret. Workforce and Human Resources are terms that need replacing, and in the transition it’s hard to find better terms until they’re established. One thing I’m proud of is at DEV we don’t have ‘Human Resources’ we have ‘Supporting people’, and I hope that stays at the heart of everything.