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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 26 June 2012

Rethinking Work: The Impact of Occupational Mental Health on Productivity


Of course, conventional wisdom tells us this is all nonsense. Depression and anxiety are excuses, not sicknesses - people just need to get over themselves. In fact, working through anxiety and depression makes you strong on the other end.

When it comes to micromanagement, hey; tough managers are effective managers; employees need close oversight, otherwise they'd be the bosses, wouldn't they? Life is tough; if you can't rise to the challenge then you're probably in the wrong environment. I went through the same thing - look how I turned out. Some folk are just in denial about the way the world really is.

And yet, study after study indicates we are facing a rise in work-related mental health concerns. You might even call it a global business mental health crisis. Countries around the world are trying to find reactive ways to tackle this elephant in the room; Canada has just released it's own plan for a national mental healthcare strategy. The question largely being ignored is this; iis there a correlation between the rise in workplace mental illness and the increasing amounts of cognitive work people are being given to do under increasingly tight deadlines? Is it the people or the nature of work that's the problem?

I once had a baffling conversation with a woman in business who's partner, also in business, was facing heart health concerns. This fellow works ridiculous hours and has an enormous set of expectations put on him. He also tends to drink excessively, but that's as much part of his work culture as anything else. This woman, wickedly smart, incredibly strategic and prone to making informed decisions told me she'd done her homework and found there was no significant correlation between stress and heart health.  She was worried about her partner's well-being, yet determined the stress of his (and her) lifestyle was not a factor.  I had looked at the exact same data she had and come to a completely different conclusion; she was going to take her counsel over mine, though, because she had a track record of success to fall back on.  When you're used to being right, you're not likely to consider the advice of someone with less related experience - if anything, you'll seek the advice of consultants (but might not necessarily follow it). 
Since then, I have done even more research (largely listed in the E-Library column to the left of this blog), stretching beyond mental illness and including cognitive processes, how and why the body reacts to physical stimuli and even mental health in other animals.  I wonder what my friend would have said if I had told her that zebras don't get ulcers?  It's kind of a human thing.

This is the piece that gets left out of the conversation - life, in general, is meant to be stressful, but only in short burstsPredators spend most of their time resting, conserving energy for the physical toll hunting takes on them.  The same holds true with prey; stress is a short-term burst of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that allows them to survive an encounter or not, after which they can either go back to relaxing or are dead.

The human world of work is increasingly moving away from that model.  In the Industrial Age, workers would clock in, do their shifts, take their breaks and then go home.  There was a clear divide between work and home life; work itself was more about one-off activities rather than complex, long-term commitments.  Writing a note or building a widget is one thing; seeking out new business opportunities, creating long-term strategies and maintaining networks is another beast completely.  Add to this gridlock, picking up the kids, making it to the grocery store, etc, etc; we have developed a work/life system of non-stop stress.  It's clearly not a sustainable model.

So, why are some people - say, 1% of the population - so willing to clinging to it?  To me, it seems to go back to biology.  In a survival-of-the-fittest model, we assume the environment isn't the problem; if you're tough, you'll manage and if not, you don't.  Until a tipping point gets reached where a sufficient proportion of the population falls below the cut, we can still keep telling ourselves that it's a success thing, not a culture thing.  Those at the top are comfortable in the model; like a lion resting after a full meal, they see no need to expend the necessary energy to change a system that is working for them just fine.  Sadly, it takes until the social unrest at the bottom is so severe that the people at the top will face enough disruption (cortisol) to look at alternatives, while still trying to preserve their relative positions.  Don Tapscott calls this the burning platform - personally, I like the metaphor of the boiling frog.

The fact is, the platform is burning and unrest is bubbling to the surface.  Worse, if you're in business, you're bottom line is being impacted.  There's only one way to get ahead of this problem; by rethinking work, revising the way we understand mental health and beginning to consciously consider the collective impact of our actions.

If you don't like it, too bad - you're just gonna have to get used to it.

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