I recently relooked at some predictions I made at the start of the year. I wrote that I thought that we’d start to see internal communications focus less on the concept of employee engagement and more on employee well-being. It seemed to me to be rather pointless trying to interest and engage people in strategy and values if they were far too stressed and exhausted to care. Six months after I made my comments it is clear, as Nils Bohr, the Nobel laureate, once said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

Last week I spoke to someone who worked in an office where no one took a lunch break (they all grabbed a sandwich, ate at their desk and worked through lunch.) Worse, no one went for a run; everyone started early, finished late and took pride in continuing to work (ie send emails) when at home and at the weekend. This was, it seemed, the norm and the minimum expected in order to demonstrate commitment and loyalty. It is, for many people, a familiar story. Organisations espouse values that put their people first and then they create work environments that lead inexorably to burnout. Of course, it is not necessarily the organisations which set out to create factory farm working conditions. Often it is the workers themselves. Somehow, a perverse group-think culture gets created where conformity to a working model sets off an arms race of ever more unhealthy behaviours. People get rewarded for working hard; for input and output. Working smart and focusing on outcomes is less important than being seen to be constantly at one’s desk.

Technology has also played a significant part in adding to the burden of workplace stress. Where ever you go, your work goes too. The inanimate internet, free from any emotions, is always there bringing more work to be done and emails to be replied to. Sometimes it really does feel as if one is trapped in a never-ending cycle of work that eats into family time, holidays and sleep. In years’ past, the rat race was characterised as a snoring boring journey on a constant treadmill; now, it’s more like an uphill sprint, continually jumping hurdles whilst trying to send emails and do conference calls.

There are many people who acknowledge the issues but cope because they’ve made a quasi Faustian pact. For them it’s not the work that’s important; rather, it’s the money and that means they’re prepared to put up with anything just so long as the money keeps rolling in. For them, earning money is a form of self-medicating, helping to keep the real issues at bay. However, where there is agreement is that hard work is not the same as productive work. Quality and quantity are not the same. Our understanding of stress is such that we now know that constant exposure to high-pressure environments leads to bad judgements and poor decision making. That is why, for instance, combat troops are regularly rotated. There may be people who consider themselves to be supermen, capable of thriving in the hot house of stress, but the reality is somewhat different.

So what do you say to someone who feels trapped in such an environment? Such a person often feels that they only have two options: fight or flight. Fleeing is often thought of as being a coward’s way out, whereas some simply do not want to give others the satisfaction of leaving. But often leaving such an environment is merely a rational and sane reaction to an insane one. Fighting the system, however, requires real bravery. It takes courage to stand up and challenge the system and say that things don’t have to be like this. The person who asks why and looks for better ways to do things is often seen as a negative influence. Companies may say that they encourage agents for change but the reality is that those who challenge the status quo tend to be viewed with suspicion.

In my coaching and consulting practice I see a lot of people who feel trapped by the system. I try to help them find their authentic self and to work in a way that is true to their values. In the long-term it is the only sustainable way to find happiness and fulfilment in their work. And when they do, they tend to find that other people notice and gravitate towards them wanting some of what they’ve got.
William Morris, in his 1884 lecture Useful work v useless toil, said: “…worthy work carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of pleasure in using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill. All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work – mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.” And so I continue to hope that, as the year progresses, more internal communications and HR teams will start to focus less on “engagement” and more on employee well-being. Now is the time to start to embrace technology and new ways of working so that we can be more productive with less effort. After all, working smarter rather than harder is more effective, more fun and leads to fewer mistakes.