In the first half of this article, I argued that stress is a serious issue, and that systemic changes are needed to tackle what the World Health Organization calls “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” To understand exactly what changes are needed, in this second half we look at two significant environmental causes of stress.
First of all, let’s talk about connection. Social engagement - making eye contact, listening and being listened to in an attentive manner, and feeling understood - calms us and lessens our stress reactions. In an experiment where women were receiving an MRI brain scan, they were told that when a red light came on, they might receive a small electric shock on their feet – or they might not. This information lit up the stress centres of their brain. But when their partner was there holding their hand, the patients registered less stress. When they were shocked, they experienced less pain. A secure connection to another person can literally act as a buffer against shock, stress and pain.
Many workplaces ignore the importance of building personal connections. Those times spent ‘at the water cooler’ or getting a cup of coffee together are too often perceived as wasting time when we should be working. But building strong personal connections is vital for reducing stress. When we know there are people at work who care about how we feel, our stress levels decrease. Spending time with people we like isn’t just about having a good time – it decreases our stress, primes our brain for high performance, and capitalises on the motivation and energy that social support provides.
I highly recommend Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last, especially for his discussion of the chemical forces at play within our body. Chapter 7 - ‘The Big C’ - is all about cortisol, the stress hormone. Sinek explains that stress has an important evolutionary purpose: it is our body's way of responding to threats. When we feel threatened, our nervous system releases cortisol, which stimulates a heightened sense of alertness, the first level of our ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
However, in environments where people keep to themselves, engaging only when necessary, doing their work then leaving, there is constant low-grade anxiety because, as social animals, we feel stress when we’re unsupported. If the bonds of trust between people are weak, if we do not feel safe in a group, cortisol starts seeping into our veins. The stress we experience from this gut feeling distracts and limits our ability to get things done.
Building strong, personal connections with others is crucial in our working lives. Each positive interaction we experience helps to return our cardiovascular system to resting level. Over the long haul, these positive interactions help protect employees from the negative effects of job strain. Each connection lowers cortisol, which helps employees recover faster from stress and makes them better prepared to handle it in the future.
What this means is that organisations need to make systemic changes that allow and encourage people to develop strong personal connections in the workplace. People need to have opportunities to get to know each other on a personal and meaningful level, to build trust and to share. Trust can never be the result of a single team-building day. Organisations need to build personal time into the working week (in a way that is neither forced or weird). To understand more about how this might work, let’s turn to the second systemic change.
When we think about job-related stress, we often think of CEOs as having the most stressful roles in organisations because of all the responsibility that rests on their shoulders. However, organisational leaders have been found to have overall lower stress levels than those who work for them. It is not the demands of the job but the degree of control workers feel they have that causes the most stress. So let’s talk about control. Those who feel they have more control, who feel more empowered to make decisions instead of waiting for approval, suffer less stress. Those only doing as they are told suffer the most. It’s pretty straightforward: less control = more stress. Jobs that give workers less control have been linked to earlier death rates and higher rates of mental illness.
Organisations struggle with sharing control. ‘Command-and-control’ is still sadly the dominant form of leadership. The predominant, hierarchical structure of companies sees managers as making the decisions and workers as executing them. If organisations want to get serious about tackling the health epidemic of the 21st century, then what’s needed is a fundamental restructure that gives everyone a higher degree of control over their sphere of operation.
Take flexitime as a mild and reasonably well-accepted example. This practice allows people to alter their start and finish times as they see fit. If people are given more freedom over when and how they work, this will not only have a positive effect on their stress levels, it will also enable them to respond to opportunities to build personal connections with the people they work with.
I worry about workplaces which offer mindfulness meditation or yoga, as I suspect many of them create a half-hour oasis of calm for employees before requiring them to step back into a toxic environment. What is needed is to change the environment, not just give people a brief time-out from it. Mindfulness can help with stress, but it is not the answer because it does not tackle the causes of stress. Much stress is caused by environmental factors like having no control and feeling unsupported by the people around us. If we want to get serious about tackling stress, we have to get serious about tackling these causes.
Mortal Fools is running a ‘Mastering Stress’ workshop with Northern Stage in Newcastle on Wednesday 9 November. To find out more, including how to book your place, click here.
Sadly, we’re all too familiar with the symptoms of stress - feeling overburdened, irritable or anxious; finding it hard to make decisions, unable to concentrate, restless; shallow breathing, suffering from tiredness, or that sick feeling in your stomach.
Stress is clearly a problem. According to the 2012 American Psychological Association (APA) study, Stress in America, highly stressed people are less likely to eat healthily, less likely to exercise, are more likely to fail at weight loss programs, and get half as much sleep as people reporting low levels of stress. Or, as Psychology Today succinctly puts it, “Stress Kills.” So what are we to do about stress?
As the issue of stress becomes more and more mainstream, an increasing number of people and organisations are turning to ‘Mindfulness’ as the solution. As The Guardian has noted, organisations from Google to the NHS to Transport for London and even Harvard Business School have built some form of mindfulness practice into their operations.
For those of you new to the party, mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment, learning to calmly acknowledge and accept feelings, thoughts, and sensations without forcing things or hiding from them. It is about is about becoming more self-aware in your everyday life, more conscious of what you’re feeling, and more attentive to your impact. Mindfulness can be practised in daily life through conscious focusing, as well as more formal mindfulness practices, such as mindfulness meditation and activities like yoga and tai-chi which help develop awareness of your breathing. These therapies have been found to be useful for reducing stress, anxiety and depression, helping manage a wide range of physical conditions, and for general wellbeing.
I want to argue here that mindfulness is not the answer. Let me be clear: I’m not against mindfulness. The evidence is good suggesting that mindfulness practice can help people cope with stress. My issue is that as stress is increasingly being seen to be a major problem, mindfulness is being put forward as the solution. It isn’t, and here’s why.
Mindfulness can help us to relax from the physical manifestations of stress. Meditation, breathing exercises and yoga can help us to calm and soothe our emotions when we’re feeling stressed. The ability to bring our emotions back into balance is a tremendously valuable skill. Mindfulness can also help us to develop a sense of perspective which may work to reduce our stress levels. By being present, attentive and more self-aware, we may be able to recognise that the things causing us stress are smaller than they first appeared, thus alleviating our stress levels.
So what’s the problem with that? Well, mindfulness places its focus squarely on the individual. It’s about me managing my thoughts and emotions. If I am stressed, it’s up to me to do something about it. This is fine, as far as it goes, but it misses the fact that there is typically an environmental or systemic component to my stress. To illustrate, I’m going to focus briefly on the education sector.
According to The Guardian, almost four out of 10 teachers quit within a year of qualifying, with 11,000 leaving the profession before they have really begun their career. Teachers are reported as being “exhausted, stressed and burnt out.” According to the BBC, one in 10 teachers say they have been prescribed anti-depressant drugs to cope with the pressure of their jobs, with 22% increasing their alcohol intake and 21% consuming more caffeine in response to stress.
Also from the BBC, the stress of exams is having a serious impact on the mental health of children as young as six. Of 420 members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers who responded to a poll, almost half said pupils in their school had self-harmed - and 89% said testing was the main source of stress. In a different BBC article, of the 201 UK people aged between 10 and 19 who killed themselves in 2014, 29% were facing exams or exam results, with four dying on an exam day or the day after. This is compared to 22% who had been bullied. This suggests that exam stress is a larger contributory factor to youth suicide than bullying.
Education has become a hugely stressful environment, with pupils self-harming, and teachers turning to anti-depressants or quitting the profession in droves. And yet the response so far has been predominantly to say that the individuals need to develop more ‘grit’ and resilience, rather than saying that perhaps something in the environment needs to change (say, less testing).
The education example serves to show us that stress is not simply a personal matter. It is an environmental, structural, and organisational matter. In the workplace, stress is a serious issue. In the UK last year, there were almost half a million reported cases of work-related stress, anxiety or depression. In Australia, 21% of people take time off work for stress-related reasons. ‘Stress leave’ is now an accepted term in most workplaces. According to the World Health Organization, stress is “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” The thought that workplaces are responding to the health epidemic of the 21st century by putting on meditation classes at lunchtime is woefully inadequate. We need systemic changes. To understand what changes are needed, in the second half of this article we’ll look at two environmental causes of stress.
Mortal Fools is running a ‘Mastering Stress’ workshop at Northern Stage in Newcastle on Wednesday 9 November. To find out more, including how to book your place, click here.
With all the political turmoil at present, and with the Labour party rebelling against Jeremy Corbyn saying he’s not a leader largely because he was not sufficiently vocal within the Remain campaign, it seems like a good time to look a little closer at what exactly leadership is.
Many descriptions of leadership are both confused and unclear. Too often, being in a managerial or executive position is conflated with being a leader. Leadership is not the same as management. Management is about tasks, where leadership is about people. A person cannot be a leader without followers. That’s what ‘leading’ crucially implies: that wherever it is you’re heading, there are other people going with you. But a leader doesn’t simply recruit followers to tail him wherever he goes, like some creepy Pied Piper. A leader also leads a movement, a community with a shared purpose. Fundamentally, leaders lead people for a purpose.
When we think about leaders, we often think about ‘charisma’. How can one person motivate others to join her cause and follow her? Well, through magnetism of personality. Through being a larger-than-life inspirational speaker. Through providing a vocal beacon that other people can follow…or so we commonly assume.
However, Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, recounts his research into what enables a good company to make the transition into a great one and includes an illuminating section on leadership. He concludes that larger-than-life ‘rock star’ leaders actually do not enable a company to make a sustainable transition to greatness. Trading on their force of personality, these individuals build a framework Collins calls ‘the genius with a thousand helpers’ - other people are there to facilitate the leader’s brilliance, but no-one who might challenge the leader’s ‘genius’ is given any real power. The company may show signs of success during the ‘rock star’ tenure, but when they leave, the company typically falls apart.
Truly great companies have what Collins calls ‘Level 5 leaders.’ This bland title is deliberate to avoid assuming too much about these people. Level 5 leaders are not showy; they’re often quiet, always humble, and they manage to take their ego out of the picture. Level 5 leaders have an intense focus on the success of the organisation, and very little focus on their personal success, often eschewing the spotlight altogether. The key part of what makes Level 5 leaders great is that they build for the future. By not focusing on themselves, they work to craft systems and structures that allow the company to flourish without them. They make sure that greatness is sustainable, rather than dependent on them. They put the cause first.
My favourite metaphor for leadership comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Gladwell explains how plane crashes occur – typically as the result of not one but seven human errors. In one of his real-life stories, we hear from a flight recorder of a crashed plane that two junior flight team members knew their plane was at risk but only expressed their concerns mildly because their boss, the captain, was flying the plane and they were too scared to challenge him.
Gladwell’s research shows that planes are safer when the least experienced member of the flight team is flying. More experienced team members are less afraid to speak up and offer suggestions and corrections to the person piloting the plane, so more errors are caught rather than contributing to a fatal chain of seven. To achieve the best results, the captain literally has to take a backseat and allow the less experienced people to fly the plane. If that isn’t a great metaphor for leadership, I don’t know what is. The best ‘captain’ is one who encourages others to try, who provides guidance, and helps others develop their skills as part of a team. True leadership requires the strength to abandon yourself to the skills and ideas of others, rather than filling the spotlight yourself.
True leadership is both hard and rare. When you are the most experienced person on board, it is hard to take a back seat and let others fly the plane. You could probably fly the plane better than anyone else. It is hard to watch others make mistakes that you would not have made, especially when there are potentially disastrous consequences resting on such mistakes.
But leadership is not about a single flight. It is about building a team and a movement, capable of flying people safely around the world for years to come. The most common flaw of people in leadership positions is probably not asking for help – or not accepting sufficient help from others. It is trying to do too much oneself. It is trying to fly every single plane, instead of investing in developing future pilots. The only way to lead a movement is to invest in building other people. The very heart of leadership is making it possible for others to contribute, grow, and lead. A true leader builds future leaders because whatever team or movement he or she is leading needs to sustain momentum after the original leader has gone.
So if true leadership isn’t about being a larger-than-life, charismatic beacon, but it is fundamentally about people, how does that work? It is difficult if not impossible to boil leadership down to a complete list of qualities, so rather than even trying to do that, I want to highlight two essential qualities of leadership: emotional intelligence and courage.
In their Harvard Business Review article 'Why should anyone be led by you?', authors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones describe four unexpected qualities they have found to be common to all truly great leaders:
All of these qualities are about emotional intelligence – making oneself vulnerable, using intuition, employing empathy, revealing one’s idiosyncrasies. Leadership has a significant and necessary emotional component because leadership fundamentally involves building trust. The only sustainable way people will follow you is if they trust you. (You can use fear or money to get people to follow you, but these are both short-term measures. Unless you keep upping the fear or the money, they will soon abandon you.) Conversely, the only way you, as a leader, will yield control of the aircraft to others is if you can allow yourself to trust them.
Generating trust and trusting others are significant emotional skills, but they are things we commonly overlook when considering leaders. We think leaders need to be larger-than-life and invulnerable, but showing some vulnerability makes you approachable and helps people connect with you. We think leaders need to have a master plan, but relying heavily on intuition allows leaders to respond to the needs of the people who make up the movement, and that becomes a driving factor. Emotional intelligence is essential for leadership.
As for courage, leadership is often presented as glamorous because of the elevated status suggested by having ‘followers.’ Yet a rarely-spoken-about fact of leadership is that it is deeply uncomfortable. When you’re leading, you’re the person out in front of the others, walking into the unknown. You’ll be the one to get hit first with the dangers and pitfalls that are out there. Leadership requires the courage to walk into the darkness, not knowing what’s going to befall you. As Seth Godin writes in Tribes: We need you to lead us, “It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to resist the idea to settle. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, you’re not reaching your potential.”
Leadership is about being the first person to step into the unknown. It is this fact, rather than charisma, that encourages people to follow you. It’s putting your money where your mouth is, modelling the behaviour you want to see in others. Courage and emotional intelligence go hand-in-hand, because once you’ve taken that first step into the unknown, you need to work with others to help them overcome their fears and take that next step with you. This is the process through which movements are built and the world is shaped into something better for all of us.
Mortal Fools is running a ‘Leadership’ workshop with Northern Stage in Newcastle on Tuesday 1 November. To find out more, including how to book your place, click here.
Anyone putting together a team recognises that having a range of skills and personalities is important. You need a person who is going to challenge and ask the difficult questions, but if you have a team full of them, you’re going to do nothing but argue. You need a peacemaker who will minimise disputes and help overcome disagreements, but if you have a team full of them, you’ll only ever achieve the nicest decision rather than the best decision.
We are all different, and we all have different strengths. Positive Psychology tells us that understanding and using our personal strengths is of fundamental importance. (Positive Psychology is not the same as ‘positive thinking.’ Prof Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology and President of the American Psychological Association, pointed out that psychology has historically always had a focus on pathology, on mental diseases and how to treat them. He argued that it needed a new focus on growth and fulfilment, where mental health was viewed to be more than simply the absence of mental disease. This new focus became Positive Psychology).
Seligman holds that the most fulfilled lives for human beings are ones in which we are able to use our personal strengths while serving a goal bigger than ourselves. This latter part – purpose – is hugely important but we won’t be looking at that in this blog post. Too often, we fail to recognise what our personal strengths are and, consequently, we fail to make the best use of them.
We were recruiting new facilitators for our team earlier this year. As part of that recruitment, we asked the candidates each to prepare and lead a 10-minute introductory group exercise. One young woman quickly volunteered to go first and led the group through an activity in complete silence. She held the attention of and issued instructions to the group simply through gestures and facial expressions. Her good use of eye contact and her expressive, smiling face helped put people at ease throughout the process. Suffice to say, we hired her.
A few weeks later, we were doing some development work with the team around personal strengths. Using the Values in Action (VIA) strengths tool (available free online), this same woman was surprised when her results had said that curiosity was one of her key strengths. Curiosity is about being open to new ideas, perspectives, and possibilities. It’s about seeking new experiences and getting absorbed in things. She thought this was a problem rather than a strength, as that’s the message she had often received from others (like the child who keeps asking ‘why?’). I reflected back to her about the exercise she had chosen for the recruitment day – that the idea of a silent activity would never have occurred to most people and that her complete commitment to and comfort in the activity had helped to draw other people into the action. This was her using her curiosity as a strength, even though she hadn’t realised she was doing it.
One of my personal strengths is honesty/genuineness. I hear repeatedly from other people that I’m the same in any setting. Be it at home, with colleagues, with clients, with children, I’m always just me. This is a strength because this consistency becomes something that other people can count on – they know what to expect from me. It also helps me to build trust with others as I don’t play games or wear masks. I am happy to have this as one of my strengths, in part because I know no other way to be.
However, our strengths can also be weaknesses. Take another of my strengths, perseverance. I am very good at motivating myself and keeping going, doing whatever it takes to get things done. However, what this means is that I pay scant attention to myself and my own needs, often running myself into the ground in pursuit of getting the job done. It’s not unusual for me to finish a project then to fall ill within a couple of days. I would do much better to persevere a bit less, to allow myself a bit more time and flexibility, and stay healthier.
Whether a personal quality is presently operating as a strength or as a weakness, it is invaluable for us to know our personal strengths. If I know that honesty and genuineness are strengths of mine, I can seek out opportunities that allow me to use these strengths, like building new relationships or helping to put a group at ease or bringing people together for a common cause. Being able to use the things I’m good at makes me feel useful and fulfilled, which is what Positive Psychology argues. This knowledge also helps me to look after myself. In the case of honesty and genuineness, I can be aware that putting myself so thoroughly into all situations leaves me vulnerable when people are less open or less genuine. If I know I bring perseverance to a team, I make it more likely that the team will overcome obstacles and meet its goals. But I also know I can slip into being a hard taskmaster, which can damage the team’s productivity, and I can put measures in place to avoid crossing this line.
Knowledge of my personal strengths helps me become more effective, as it enables me to focus my efforts on the areas where I can add the most value. It helps me become a better colleague and teammate, as I understand better how I can help others – and what I need to watch to make sure I don’t grate on them. It also helps my motivation and fulfilment, as knowing what I’m good at enables me to do more of what I’m good at – and this is a central part of living a mentally healthy life.
Mortal Fools is running a ‘Personal Strengths’ workshop with Northern Stage in Newcastle on Thursday 21 September. To find out more, including how to book your place, click here.
1. People are more likely to learn if they are in a positive atmosphere
Negative emotions such as fear, anxiety or pessimism detract from learning, as they make people focus on protecting themselves rather than extending themselves. If people feel safe and are having fun, they are more likely to learn and to learn more. (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly)
2. Learning is necessarily uncomfortable
Learning new things involves your brain making physical connections where before there weren’t any. Learning is literally changing the shape and layout of your brain. So if it’s not uncomfortable, you’re probably not learning. (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly)
3. Having the right mindset is essential for learning
After doing poorly on a test, students with a growth mindset resolve to study more and want to learn from the tests of those who have done much better. Those with a fixed mindset resolve to study less, want to look at the tests of those who have done poorly in order to feel better, and may even seriously consider cheating. (Carol Dweck, Mindset)
4. Reward systems do not help learning, and often harm it
While it’s very tempting to try to motivate students by dangling a carrot in front of them – “If you focus for this whole week, we’ll do something fun on Friday” – what this does is reduces the importance of learning in their minds. It makes learning just a means to an end. ‘Learning’ becomes ‘something we do to achieve a reward’ rather than ‘something important in itself.’ This has the long-term effect of reducing motivation for learning. (Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards)
5. Doing things they like doing helps people to learn and remember
When we’re doing something enjoyable, our brain releases just the right amount of dopamine to enable us to learn and remember. Interestingly, this surge in dopamine levels actually improves our memories of what was going on for the 15-20 minutes before the surge happened. This is our brain’s way of encouraging us to do enjoyable things. Students who laughed during or after learning have been found to improve their recall by as much as 20%. (Ian Gilbert, Why Do I Need A Teacher When I’ve Got Google?)
6. Peer learning in mixed age groups has significant benefits to both parties
Younger children have been found to learn more effectively from working with their five or six year elders. Adolescent males working with younger children have been found to display less aggression and have lower testosterone levels. (Ian Gilbert, WDINATWIGG?)
7. Students’ performance can be boosted by writing about values that are important to them
Spending as little as 15 minutes reflecting on and writing about values that the student finds important can help to reduce the achievement gap. By focusing on things that make the student feel good about themselves, their confidence increases and so their performance improves. (Ian Gilbert, WDINATWIGG?)
8. We cannot motivate students to learn
Motivation is not something that gets done to people. It is something that people create for themselves. Young children learn and explore with great curiosity and considerable intensity. However, as children grow older, they lose much of this natural curiosity and excitement - or get it ‘taught’ out of them. (Edward Deci, Why We Do What We Do)
9. A strong focus on grades demotivates students from actual learning
Focusing on grades makes learning a means to an end. People become more focused on ‘getting good grades’ than on ‘learning’. Students who learn in order to be tested have been found to have less intrinsic motivation and less conceptual understanding of the material covered. (Edward Deci, Why We Do What We Do)
10. ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ is a distress call
Often taken as a sign of laziness, this question shows that a love of learning has been kicked out of the student. Learning has been made a means to passing tests. Within this internalised framework, if it’s not going to be on the test, you are wasting the student’s time. Students’ motivation has been shifted from ‘learning’ to ‘getting good grades’. (Edward Deci, Why We Do What We Do)
If you’re one of the fortunate few currently thinking, “No” then congratulations and good luck to you. But if you’re one of the many who toils day after day, grinding yourself against the millstone, wishing for something different but not knowing what, then please read on and know that you are not alone.
According to this Gallup workplace engagement survey, 63% of employees worldwide “are essentially “checked out.” They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time — but not energy or passion — into their work.” A further 24% are not “just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness” and spreading negativity to their colleagues.
87% of employees worldwide. That’s a lot of people.
Did you realise this problem was so big? I certainly didn’t.
In 2010, one in every three US workers was considering leaving their job, but a vastly smaller number actually did so, which means that “A lot of unhappy workers are staying put.” Why? Because we believe that’s just the way the world is. Surely liking your job is just a luxury, right? We need to keep earning so we can pay the bills. And who’s to say that we’d be any happier in a different job?
Let’s start by dealing with a few hard truths. First, we do need to work. It’s an economic reality that we need to earn a living in order to buy the things that keep us alive. Number two, not everyone can find their dream job. There are many reasons for this. One is that not everyone has a dream job, something they feel put on earth to do. And that’s okay. Another is that there are only so many spaces in the world for concert pianists and elite athletes, so if this is your dream, your chances of success are small. A third is that landing your dream job takes a certain amount of good luck and sometimes circumstances are simply not kind. Maybe you have a sick relative to take care of, and caring for them understandably takes precedence over landing your dream job.
But the first two of these hard truths – we have to work and not everyone can find a dream job – leave a great many people settling for too little and hating the consequences. In the UK last year, there were almost half a million reported cases of work-related stress, anxiety or depression. In Australia, 21% of people take time off work for stress-related reasons. Our work is, quite literally, making us sick.
Martin Luther King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” We spend around a third of our adult lives at work. It matters that almost nine in every ten working adults are spending this much time demotivated and unhappy. It matters that we quietly accept something that is making us stressed, anxious and depressed. I do not know what the overall social impact is of this worldwide demotivation and dissatisfaction, but I suspect that people who go home stressed, depressed and unhappy are not contributing what they could to society and to the common good. And this is no criticism of them: when you are dealing with such things, it becomes truly difficult to give anything of yourself beyond the bare minimum. Demotivation and disengagement at work lead to people disengaging socially.
The negative impact our work currently has on us is a two-headed monster: it makes us sick and unhappy, and it damages the social fabric of our communities by limiting what people are able to contribute. This fact matters – and I find it incredible that there aren’t more people talking about this level of disengagement. Improving the way we experience and feel about our work needs to become a priority. So watch this space to read some of our ideas of what we can do about it.
Last year, while living in Australia, I read this Sydney Morning Herald article suggesting that NSW secondary schools focus too much on university pathways for their students, at the expense of employment pathways. A report for the NSW Business Chamber found that the state secondary school system emphasises entry into university over entry into the workforce and, as a result, it is failing to teach people the skills they will need in the workplace.
Leaving aside the fact that a report for the NSW Business Chamber came to a pro-business conclusion, this article raised some important questions by not asking them. The article, and the report it cites, seem to assume that the point of secondary school is to get kids either into university or into the workforce.
Now, when students leave secondary school, they will enter either university or employment – unless they decide to travel or are unfortunate enough to join the ranks of the unemployed. It is important that people have the skills to succeed either at university or in a job, though it is arguable whether they need to have those skills before they get to those places or whether those places should help them to develop those skills. Nevertheless, thinking of secondary school simply in terms of preparing people for the next stage does it a grave disservice.
There are two important aspects of secondary school that are being dangerously overlooked by this ‘university-or-employment’ dichotomy. The first is that secondary schools should be instilling in people a love of learning. The second is that secondary schools should be developing in people the skills they will need to live a fulfilling life, not simply to succeed in a degree or a job.
If you have never read or watched anything by Ken Robinson, stop reading this and go do so now. To make it even easier for you, just click on this link. In various places and ways, Robinson describes how young children enter education with a thirst for knowledge and a never-ending curiosity and yet leave with a hatred of school and wanting to know “Why do we have to learn this?”. “Will this be in the exam?” becomes their guiding principle.
Life-long learning is tremendously important. ‘Mastery’ – developing new skills and overcoming challenges – is one of our fundamental psychological needs as human beings. Basically, we need to keep learning. Learning is a vital, intrinsic component in our motivation, as we will discuss elsewhere on this blog. Learning is also central to our mental health and our chances of leading a successful life. Carol Dweck does a great job in this book of explaining the importance of having a ‘growth mindset’. We are worse off if we do not love learning. Yet most students are leaving school having lost their love of learning. This has to change.
Having a job and going to university are both important components in a fulfilled life (though not everyone can or should go to university). As we discuss elsewhere, work is centrally important to our sense of identity, to our mental health, and even to our human nature. That being said, life is always about more than work. Secondary schools should not limit themselves to thinking “What do our students need to learn in order to get a job when they leave here?”. They should be thinking “What do our students need to learn in order to lead a fulfilled life?”. Getting a job is part of that, but only part. And schools know this. The schools we have worked with care deeply about educating ‘the whole student’, helping young people to grow into confident, resilient, responsible individuals. Schools know that they are trying to empower their students to lead a fulfilling life, and yet wider conversations about education overlook this fact. Why? As a society, we’re not comfortable asking questions like ‘What makes a fulfilling life?’ so we lower things from the ethical level to the economic level – getting a job. But ‘getting a job’ – any job – can never be all that matters. And while important, it is certainly not the purpose of education.
“Mental stress costs businesses more than $10 billion per year”
So booms the headline of a report from Safe Work Australia. In the USA, we are told that workplace stress is estimated to cost businesses around $300 billion a year.
Job stress is the major type of stress in developed countries, and levels have been creeping up and up for decades. ‘Stress leave’ is now an accepted term in most workplaces. And stress is a serious problem. According to the World Health Organization, it is “the health epidemic of the 21st century.”
Stress causes physical pain, and other problems. It interferes with our sleep, causes fatigue, and makes us skip meals. It essentially wears down our body and our brain. According to the 2012 American Psychological Association (APA) study, Stress in America, highly stressed people:
Or, as Psychology Today succinctly puts it, “Stress Kills.”
While workplace stress is a major problem, and one which we will discuss in future posts, right now I want to focus on the headlines rather than the story. Look at the headlines I mention at the top of this article. What do they tell us? They tell us that workplace stress costs money – a lot of money. The causes of these costs are quite clear – absenteeism, reduced productivity, employee turnover, workers’ compensation – but that’s not my issue. My issue is with the message itself.
If stress is “the health epidemic of the 21st century” and if workplace stress is one of the most common forms of it, the fact that it is costing businesses a lot of money is, to me, far less important than the fact it is ravaging people’s lives. This is not an economic problem. It’s a health problem. It’s a wellbeing problem. It’s a human problem. If ethics is about the kind of lives that have value and meaning, it’s an ethical problem.
Having suffered from severe workplace stress myself, and having seen the impact it has had on friends and family, I understand the personal impact of stress. To hear that it is costing businesses a lot of money makes me acknowledge that this is an issue, but it is not the issue. The issue is the impact stress has on people’s lives, on their health and wellbeing, on how they feel about themselves, and how they treat and are treated by the people around them.
Reframing a personal, human issue as an economic one is, to my mind, part of the problem. We know that 87% of the world’s employees are not engaged with the work they are doing, yet this is seen primarily as a business productivity issue. Think about how it feels to go to work every day and to sleepwalk through what you’re doing, not caring about it, just putting in the hours until you can go home. (For many of us, this will require no great leap of imagination.) Think about the impact this has on you – on your life, on how you interact with other people, on the energy you have available for other things. The issue here – be it about stress or disengagement – is not how much money businesses are losing; it is about the impact on people’s lives.
Too often in our work, we are reduced to mere task-performers. We are treated as though our paycheque is our primary or our sole motivation – do the tasks, get the money. Since human beings are complex and vulnerable creatures, with rich emotional and intellectual lives, and deep psychological needs, being reduced to robotic task-performers has a significant and damaging impact. Being reduced to mere task-performers is part of what causes such massive levels of stress and disengagement. Yet in the reporting of the levels of stress and disengagement, it keeps happening – human beings are implicitly treated as things that are there to perform the tasks of the company (productivity) or to drive corporate revenue.
There needs to be a major change in the way human beings are viewed from a company perspective and the way they are treated by companies. When even such personal problems as stress and disengagement are being severed from their human context and put in purely business terms, we have a major problem on our hands. We need to fundamentally reconnect the work being done with the human beings who are doing it. This is no small task. We will try to spell out what this looks like and how this can be done in future posts.
Dr Andrew Crosbie