The existing paradigm of workplace wellbeing narrative trains us to consider ourselves like plants, all lined up side by side in individual plastic pots.
The ‘pots’ represent our individualism, our isolation, and the artificiality of what contains us. This Plant Pot mindset is what guides most modern organisations, including their approach to wellbeing and resilience. Through this mindset, I as a struggling individual am asked to work on solving ‘my stress’, ‘my anxiety’, and ‘my burnout’.
The limitations of these phrases are that they can place too much emphasis on the individual and not enough focus on the system they inhabit.
On the one hand, it places the individual staff member as the defacto biggest and most important piece of the puzzle (rather than one part of a complex whole) and, on the other hand, it burdens the individual as being the one that needs to fix everything, to solve their burnout issue, the one who is solely responsible for all that is “wrong with them”.
Because struggling individuals are viewed through the ‘Plant Pot’ mindset, most interventions offered to Wellbeing Leads focus on individual action. For Wellbeing Leads we speak to, the menu they must select from tends to look like the following:
- Generic work-design policies such as ‘no-meeting Fridays’, reduced admin burdens or a weekly ‘protected-hour’
- Giving the individual access to a therapist via the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)
- Training some mental health first aiders to support & signpost individuals who are no longer coping (serving as the defacto human face for the EAP)
- PDF’s and/orE-learning detailing for the individual what they should be doing to look after themself, often centred around the wellbeing calendar.
- One-off webinars on standardised wellbeing issues, with no follow up or ongoing agenda
- Subscription to an app with mindfulness meditations or breathing exercises
These activities can be enormously complex to get off the ground, especially in global organisations, and Wellbeing Leads that manage this deserve respect and appreciation.
These forms of support do two things effectively:
- Provide pathways for overwhelmed employees to get crisis support
- Help staff in general feel seen, heard and cared about. We call this ‘cosmetic wellbeing’ – the necessity to be seen to be doing something (anything!) – and is an essential part of the solution.
The problem is that crisis support and cosmetic wellbeing strategies aren’t moving the dial on the burnout metrics in any meaningful way. In fact, according to Forbes, more workers are experiencing burnout now than during the height of the pandemic. Wellbeing Leads are witnessing increasing cynicism towards their initiatives among the workforce.
Why is this? We believe the answer is that it is near impossible to sustain healthy behaviours if we are embedded in a system that doesn’t support it effectively, and after years of trying, more and more workers are coming to this realisation.
A personal anecdote
Take myself as an example. I’m in recovery from Binge Eating Disorder (and the obesity symptoms it causes) and am currently on a weight loss protocol called Bodyslims. This protocol involves heavily restricting my calorie intake, a daily 60 minute walk, daily motivational videos, nightly self-hypnosis audios and weekly seminars. An easy enough set of habits to form.
I spent the first 4 weeks enacting these habits in a given system – my home. The relevant features of this system are:
- My loving, supportive partner Amelia, who understands my struggles intimately and cooks me delicious, healthy meals that are weighed out using kitchen scales (I’m truly blessed, I know!)
- The peer support and accountability of my friend and lodger Sarah, who is on the exact same weight loss protocol as me.
- A cool, temperate climate to do my walks in.
- Strong internet signal to stream motivational videos and nightly self-hypnosis from anywhere
I did very well in this system, losing 20 pounds in 4 weeks.
This system was then disrupted by a two week trip to Thailand. This new system had the following features:
- All meals must be eaten in restaurants, with portion sizes dictated by anonymous chefs, who specialise in oily, sugary foods.
- No peer support and accountability from Sarah
- A humid, roasting, tropical jungle that is uncomfortable to walk around in, creates lethargy and encourages sedentary activity.
- No phone signal to stream seminars, motivational videos or nighty self-hypnosis
Safe to say that despite my sincere efforts, I didn’t lose any weight during that two-week trip, in fact, I put on some weight. I as an individual did my best, but by changing the system I was embedded in, I experienced challenges that led to very different outcomes.
This personal example generalises to all other forms of habit formation & systems. Consider the recovering alcoholic with a friendship group whose bonding rituals revolve around drinking together in a pub. They would find it much harder to stay sober than socialising in an alcohol free venue, surrounded by fellow non-drinkers enjoying a sober evening, with several high trust relationships with fellow recovering alcoholics.
Individual to systemic thinking
If the majority of workers in your organisation are experiencing diagnosable burnout symptoms (which, according to Deloitte, they are) then the issue is a collective, systemic issue, not an individual one. It therefore requires us to think and work at the systems level.
However, the ongoing over-emphasis on the individual within workplace wellbeing solutions, the narrow perspective that your unhealthy behaviour patterns are yours and yours alone (and should be worked on and solved for alone) is actually preventing us from coming to sustainable resolutions around the burnout epidemic.
Dynamics that could be solved relationally through collective conversations, team practises, cultural norms, effective leadership and organisational design are instead dwelled upon, fixated upon and endlessly rehashed as static individual problems.
The next paradigm of workplace wellbeing requires its leaders to undergo a mindset shift, to view their workforce not as static, individual ‘plants in pots’ but instead as a forest of fauna. Such complex ecosystems are profoundly interconnected, passing each other information and nutrients via a complex network of subterranean fungi called Mycelium. In this context, if a single plant doesn’t flourish, the best (indeed, only) strategy would be to optimise the environment in which the plant is growing – not just the plant itself.
Lasting wellbeing, resilience and performance arises through a holistic combination of interventions – an intricate blend of individual, team, leadership and operational change – i.e cultural transformation – and this is the process that Wellbeing Leaders of the future need to steward. This is not easy, as it requires Wellbeing Leads to become champions of an entirely new culture, and this requires a willingness to challenge the dominant one – Legacy Corporate Culture.
Legacy Corporate Culture is a set of assumptions, beliefs, values, mindsets and behaviours that we have inherited from our ancestors, which govern how we show up together in the workplace. It was invented by Frederick Taylor and his contemporaries during the second industrial revolution.
Among other things, Legacy Corporate Culture is a Norm System (a relatively simple system of social punishment and reward) that incentivises individual and collective behaviours that put the majority of us on burnout trajectories – it is without a doubt the biggest, most potent cause of the workplace mental health crisis, continuing to push the already-refuted ideology that the only way to meet our professional goals is through working beyond our capacities forever. If you can’t sustain working beyond your capacities and leave, you’re quickly replaced – the potted plant is thrown away and replaced by another. When the second withers due to inadequate light, water or nutrients, it will also be replaced (Homebase offers a limitless supply, after all!).
Legacy Corporate Culture is holding all of the keys and guarding all of the doors, and at some stage, ambitious leaders who wish to create actual, genuine, lasting wellbeing in their organisation must confront it. To change a culture means changing the Norm System, to change what is rewarded or punished within the organisation. The simplest example of this change could be shifting norms around ‘managers routinely sending emails out of hours’ being rewarded as ‘role modelling work ethic’ to being socially punished as ‘role modelling poor boundaries’.
This is no easy task, and requires engaging the organisation across all levels – individual, team, manager, leader and operational (e.g. work design).
It also requires weaving a social fabric around yourself so that you are fed by an ecosystem of guidance, support and accountability, a relational web powerful enough to hold you through the turbulence inherent to championing a cultural transformation process. A network that en-courages you (gives you courage) to make a stand, ruffle feathers, become a figurehead and advocate for lasting change.
Mycelium exists to help you shape that strategy through our consulting, activate on it through keynotes and programmes, then sustain it through facilitating deep relationships with your counterparts in other organisations. There is also this blog, which will be a place to unpack different components to the process of creating lasting wellbeing and performance through cultural transformation, if you’re curious to come along for the ride, please subscribe.