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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Mental Health, the Knowledge Economy and the Cognitive Labour Movement

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."

  - Benjamin Franklin

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a Why Should I Care discussion around the theme of Mental Health – its Challenges and Solutions.  There was a lot of focus spent on the fact that mental health and addictions are the underfunded cousin in our national health care strategies.  One of the speakers, Dr. Paul Garfinkel, said that while there is presently an upswing in public sector engagement and funding, he’s seen this same boom-and-bust cycle of interest come and go in the past to no lasting effect.  Priorities shift, he suggested; new generations of political and business leaders, police chiefs, etc. lose the thread, then it’s back to square one.

Another key theme discussed was the fact that, as I’ve posted elsewhere, natural resources might be a get-rich-quick scheme that will work in the short term, but that isn’t going to sustain us over the long-term as we continue our social progression from a manufacturing/industrial based economy to the Knowledge Economy.

These two points are linked.  What what we’re experiencing now is something similar to the first rumblings of the labour movement of the last century, or other labour-related movements that came before it.  Whereas it was physical harm that led to protest and eventually led to a more humanely-designed, more productive manufacturing/industrial work environment, we’re now repeating the cycle from the angle of mental stress and mental illness.

New Relationships in the Workplace

The focus of labour is therefore shifting from individual success (dog-eat-dog competition) to collaborative achievement.  This is fundamental for nurturing innovation.  Ideas don’t form in a vacuum; they require inspiration, exposure to diversity, critical thinking.  Like building a nation, collaboration simply cannot occur without a collective meaning that people can rally behind and a social framework to encourage sustainable growth. 

As an example, look at the boom-and-bust of Political Parties; they get into power on the backs of employees and volunteers that have drunk the Kool-Aid, really believe that together, they can build a better province/nation/community.  As power progresses through elections, the bright-eyed staffers become jaded or disengaged and new bodies that come in are weaned on a culture of “us-vs-them”, with very little in the way of idealism surviving the cut.  If you want an example of this, just look at Canada’s Federal Liberal Party.

Collaborative achievement, out-of-the-box thinking and candle-problem solutions require a different skill set then those typically seen as desirable today.  Before, employers wanted “hungry”, confident people who could take charge, force results through, maybe break a few eggs in the process.  There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance; arrogant people aren’t prone to listening to and contemplating the ideas of others.  When competition is the focus, our reactive brain take charge, our blinders go up and we miss lateral possibilities that are only visible when we consider the notion that maybe our way isn’t the best way - maybe someone else has valuable insight.

How many leaders achieved success by being tough, competitive and aggressive?  How many of them are good at fostering innovation and collaboration between their employees?  How much emphasis do they put on life-long learning?  The carrot-and-stick approach of bonuses/raises or demotions/firing might speed up work, but it doesn’t provide the kind of motivation needed for innovation or critical thinking.

What’s happening now is that these A-type personalities are downloading responsibility for value-add to their employees.  “I want you to think up new markets and innovative opportunities – and your bonus will be tied to your success.”  It’s an approach that won’t work, because at a neurochemical level, it can’t.  The naturally creative people will still produce, but in a less focused way.  For everyone else - pressuring them to be innovative is like throwing a kid in the deep end of the pool and telling them to jump.  This approach is going to further frustrate already frustrated employees, exacerbating already-high levels of workplace stress.

The response will be a public backlash, not unlike the rising tension that nurtured the physical labour movement.  We already see the social tension rising with Occupy, street violence, work-to-rule and strikes.  As little bits and pieces of policy up the friction, people will respond with increasingly reactive, limbic-based behaviour.  When the consequences become dire enough, decision makers will start to realize that a John Woo standoff isn't their way out and will move to appease the masses with some proactive cognitive-labour legislation and programming.  Given the connection between mental illness and social service uptake (many conditions being treated as, say, cardiac illness have a strong mental illness component), politicians and the bureaucracy will begin to see solutions to our fiscal woes in proactive mental fitness strategies, essentially taking the lead out of the water instead of trying to cure lead poisoning.

Employers will also come around to what the stats are already telling us – that properly designed workplaces and more humanely-designed work foster better, more innovative performance, help employee retention and reduce sick days.  Police are already starting to see the benefit in mental health awareness training for the satisfaction, safety and success of their front-line officers; as this trend continues, they’re going to start looking to the rest of society to do more, keeping people with mental illness from ending up in police confrontations in the first place.

You can add to this the growth of mental health curriculum in Ontario’s school boards and the rise of Social Emotional Learning as a component of education, particularly at younger ages.

What Comes Next

Mental health isn’t just about sickness any more than overall physical health is.  You can train your muscles to do more and do it with greater ease – the same holds true for our grey matter.  As we aren’t paying attention to how our brains work and how our social environment and lifestyles impact our cognitive development, we’re creating unnecessary harmful strains that make us less effective collectively.  That’s a trend that can’t last if we’re to be competitive in the Knowledge Economy.  The outlier leaders in our society are going to see the potential of proactive mental-health strategies and new tools to help empower people to use their grey-matter better and things are going to change.
Look for:
- Open-sourced training opportunities and work-time dedicated to exploring other interests tht can enhance your job performance and contributions.
- Cognitive workplaces that are designed a bit more like libraries, with a comfort feel, individual and collective workstations.  Work culture will become a bit freer; employees will have margins and timelines but greater freedom on how they spend their time
- Corporate collaboration - increased specialization that works in tandem with other parties.  This will lead to a reduction in duplicaiton, gaps and overlaps.
- More focus on team-building; work will consume more of people's time, but they'll get more meaning from it, too.

I see it as only a matter of time before such things become more common-place.  The only question, really, is how hard we’re going to resist the tough medicine that will ultimately make us all better.

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