Jennifer Moss is a syndicated radio columnist, and a workplace well-being expert. She was on the Global Happiness Council—a small group of leading scientists and economists that support the UN’s goals related to global well-being. In her latest book, The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It, Jennifer uses her research-backed insights to help individuals and organizations create healthier, happier, and more productive workplaces. Jennifer’s book was named to the shortlist for the 2021 Outstanding Works of Literature (OWL) Award in the Management & Culture Category. Jennifer is also the author of Unlocking Happiness at Work, and an award-winning article on loneliness in the workplace, “When Passion Leads to Burnout” (Harvard Business Review.)
In 2020, Jennifer completed a joint research study with Harvard Business Review that analyzed the impact of COVID-19 on workplace well-being using data from 46 countries. Once named the Canadian Innovator of the Year, and International Female Entrepreneur of the Year, Jennifer has also cofounded a consulting company, and engaged and encouraged young women as leaders in tech.
On Tuesday, 29 March 2022, Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove had Jennifer Moss on as their guest in a new session of the Thinkers50 Radar 2022 LinkedIn Live series in partnership with Deloitte.
In this edition of Author Talks, Jennifer Moss discusses her book, The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It. Moss, a Harvard Business Review contributor, nationally syndicated radio columnist, and member of the Global Happiness Council details how the pandemic has changed the conversation about burnout, it’s causes, and how organizations can begin battling the burnout epidemic.
Hello, welcome to the Thinkers50 Radar 2022 Series, brought to you in partnership with Deloitte. I’m Des Dearlove
And I’m Stuart Crainer. We are the founders of Thinkers50, the world’s most reliable resource for identifying ranking and sharing, the leading management ideas of our age, ideas that can make a real difference in the world.
In this weekly series of 45 minute webinars, we want to showcase some of those ideas to bring you the most exciting new voices of management thinking.
So please let us know where you are joining us from today and send over your questions any time during the session.
Our guest today is Jennifer Moss, she’s an award-winning Happiness Expert.
Jen is a Harvard business review contributor and was on the Global Happiness Council, a small group of leading scientists and economists that support the UN sustainable goals related to global wellbeing and the Annual Global Happiness Policy Report.
And prior to this, Jen worked in Silicon Valley, eventually joining Barack Obama’s California Social Team during his historic presidential campaign.
She’s the author of Unlocking Happiness at Work, and a new book is, The Burnout Epidemic. So our subject today couldn’t be more topical.
Jen, welcome. I mean, your career, it’s an interesting journey you’ve been on, just give us a little bit of a flavor of that, how you’ve ended up where you’ve ended up.
Yeah, so I studied journalism and have always been a very curious person and ended up in communications in a large, Fortune 1000 HR services firm, and really worked on bridging research to practical application. And that got me excited around the topic around HR, but it wasn’t until 2009, where I went through this personal sort of event, this cataclysmic event where my husband, who was a pro-athlete became acutely paralyzed.
And through that, we really seemed to understand the power of psychological fitness and how high performers are identified very early on, especially athletes, how to coach them, they have coaches their whole life that support their development, and resiliency, and post traumatic growth, and my husband’s fine, he walked out of the hospital after six weeks, but there was a huge shock around that, they told him he wasn’t going to walk again, and six weeks later he did.
And that became sort of a real foundational point where we moved back to Canada and decided that we were going to focus our lives on understanding what it is about wellness that contributes to people’s performance and led me to be a Happiness expert, and now, unfortunately I’ve become an unhappiness expert talking about chronic stress and burnout most of my days as of late.
And I guess that’s the flip side, they are the same issue if you like, they’re two ends of something or happiness and the other side is the burnout thing, which obviously is potentially disastrous.
Yes. And what I really look at it as just a continuum, we spend a lot of time on those downstream solutions, a lot of self care, but that’s far down the track and we need to be working on solving the problem around chronic stress, further upstream, so that downstream, we can eventually have more wellbeing.
But you can’t give ice cream to people that need water, and that became my focus is understanding that, there’s people that need so much more support early on in that stage of developing their mental health and wellbeing, and if we attack it too far down the stream, then we’re just pulling people out of the river instead of preventing them from falling in the first place.
Yeah. So we kind of throw people in at the deep end, metaphorically and perhaps physically in some organizations. So I think what you’re saying is that organizations need to make interventions much earlier in people’s working lives.
Absolutely. I mean, when you look at the six root causes and it’s really important to note that in 2019, the World Health Organization, pre-pandemic recognized burnout as an occupational phenomena, workplace stress left unmanaged. And that was a huge deal for researchers who were advocating for us to really define burnout in that workplace space.
And that means to understand what the root causes are. And a lot of those, and all the reasons why we see burnout and how we define burnout, come from institutional stress. And those are policies, that’s infrastructure, that’s programming, that’s organizational leadership that play a huge role in preventing burnout or causing burnout. And it’s not just on the individual to solve, so that announcement was really impactful and it wasn’t soon enough because people didn’t have enough time to prepare and absorb that before 2020 hit.
Then we got hit by the pandemic of course, but I think it’s important. Let’s talk about the six sort of root causes because I know it’s obviously it’s in your book, but the obvious one and the first one, I think you mentioned in the book is the one we all think of, which is workload, simply that we are overloaded, but there are obviously five others.
Overwork is the leading cause, it was pre pandemic, it will be in the future, I’m sure, it’s the one that’s the hardest I think to overcome because there’s so much legacy around overwork. We haven’t been able to really push through with the folks that are just used to this mode of working and always being on and you see that particularly in sectors that at risk like healthcare, and tech, and finance, and others.
So it has to be that those people that have been programmed to think this way forever till now they have to make those adjustments and that’s really difficult. And so when you do look also at the way we’ve described burnout for so long has been really nebulous, it’s been diminished, no one really knows what it means, we talk about it as being FOMO, or we should just say no to all the things that we get asked to do.
And really that issue has created this enormous impact. And in 2019, the ILO actually identified that burnout and overwork specifically is the cause of 2.8 million deaths globally every year, I mean, that’s catastrophic. And so when we start to understand that there’s real impacts, serious impacts, then I think that’ll start to adjust and change, and I do think the last couple of years have really shown a light on how bad burnout can be.
What are some of the other, we’ve mentioned the first one that you said there were six, what were some of the others?
Yeah, so overwork, yes. But then there’s also lack of agency, and a lot of people have, they were feeling that pre-pandemic when there was a lack of flexibility around when you can work. And I was writing the book pre-pandemic, which is interesting, I’ve been researching this for a long time and I was like, “We need more remote work, we need more flexibility.”
And now I think, okay, maybe that would’ve been toned deaf if I’d left that in the book, because people are feeling strange about that, but lack of agency can also just mean being micromanaged, it can also mean which we’ve seen a lot of, in this virtual leadership world. We also see that in people being on a project for a really long time and then being pulled off of it and no one telling them why being emailed at 11:00 o’clock at night and saying, “You need to do have this done by the morning.”
So that lack of agency peace is a big one, lack of fairness was big this year because of the fact that we saw women disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and they were struggling with around 15 to 20 hours of extra unpaid labor per week, and that creates this massive exodus of women from the workforce. We see this in lack of community. So it can just mean disconnected from your other staff members or your boss or feeling bullied. But in this last year, really, and two years it’s been loneliness, just isolation, disconnection, so that plays a big role.
Lack of rewards for effort. So that’s just being paid properly, people are leaving because of low pay, but also because they’re not being recognized for working really, really hard. You see nurses, and teachers, and other really important, important roles leaving because they don’t feel valued.
And the final one is a mismatch value. So feeling like you’re not connected to the mission of the organization or even your job anymore where you feel like I was really great at that, but now I’m working so hard, I don’t feel like I’m really good at this, why did I even become a lawyer? Why did I even become a doctor, or nurse, or a teacher? And that then leads us to burnout.
How did we get here? Because I mean, and obviously the pandemic is going to and have accelerated the issue and brought it to a lot of people’s attention, but it’s been something that’s been simmering over the last few decades, really.
Absolutely, and technology has played a huge role in that, that ability to check in after hours, and be always on, and the expectation of just sort of being strapped to your work, that has played a huge role. And we’ve also seen employers that have market demand or they’re feeling like they’re in high growth and they’re still sort of creating these stretch goals for people when they don’t have the proper resources, they’re asking people to work longer hours.
You’ve seen this in certain industries for a really long time, like healthcare, for example, burnout was defined as caregiver syndrome specifically in the healthcare sector, starting from the seventies, because it was always sort of like this.
And then you also find that people that are really connected to the mission are more at risk because they care so much about the stakeholder and then employers who don’t really, so they leverage that, they’re not really protecting that passion and just utilizing it to get people to work harder.
I would say just in general, just bad behavior from organizations, not really thinking that our relationship and our social contract with employees has changed, it’s no longer transactional, it’s human centered, it’s diverse, it’s nuanced, and it’s sort of taking until now for employers to realize, okay, that social contract has changed, I better change with it.
Something I remember reading a few years ago and I’m just checking that it stacks up because it may no longer be the case, but I remember reading that, but actually when they do the research that sometimes more senior people aren’t actually as exposed to stress as people further down the organization, I think that’s the agency point, I think probably what you mentioned earlier is that it’s not necessarily just a case study, it’s the very, very top manage who suffer from burnout, because they have more [inaudible 00:11:19] their lives, it’s the rest of us a bit further down the hierarchy that are feeling it, is that still the case?
And our data really did show the same thing too, the more tenure you have, the more agency you have, the more likely you are to experience less burnout, just because you can say no, or you can have conversations with people about your workload or you’re a decision maker in your own workload.
And yes, we saw exhausted leaders leading exhausted teams this year, that was definitely something because it was a collective trauma that people were going through, collective stress. And you saw senior level executives, C level executives, single parents who were still juggling kids at home and all these other things. So that created a little bit of equity in the experience. However, we’d still saw millennials and that younger millennials, those living alone, those without kids, the most hard hit, their wellbeing was most at risk.
And a lot of that is they don’t have that sort of power, it’s a high control, sort of low control, high expectation relationship. And they also didn’t know their boss, they didn’t know their coworkers, they were starting these jobs in a pandemic and feeling like their careers were being set back, and they have student debt and all these other things that we don’t even really think about going into these jobs where there’s indebted servitude, there’s like a hazing of eight years before you can get to that golden carrot, and so a lot of these things just led our younger workforce to feel extremely burned out.
I mean, the years gone by, we wrote about Karoshi in Japan where people died from overwork effectively, and it seemed then that Japan and some other Asian countries, other kind of monopoly on burnout. But now it seems to be universal, I mean, we’ve got people joining us today from Zambia, Canada, Greece, India, South Africa, and other countries. How universal is it, do you think?
Well, we were able to extrapolate data from 46 different countries and only 2% said their wellbeing was excellent, 89% said that their wellbeing had suffered in the last two years, and majority of that group too were saying that they were burned out extremely, always or often feeling burned out through the week.
So I mean that at 46 different countries, isn’t all, the entire world, but I think it gives a good sense that there’s a lot of people feeling burned out and we saw this, I mean, literally data from all over the world, people saying the exact same themes and when we did the, fortunately we did a qualitative survey as part of it, so we were asking for verbatims and the themes, it was amazing, you can hear in every single language, people feeling the same stress, overwork, lack of empathy from my leadership, feeling like I can’t juggle the demands as lots of females saying that, millennials saying, these I’ve shared a verbatim before just feeling like their careers being set back.
And it didn’t matter where people were from, they were saying the exact same thing. So I definitely believe that if it wasn’t happening already, the pandemic has created a global epidemic.
I think one of the messages I took from your book is very much that this isn’t about individuals not coping, this is a systemic problem, this is very much an organizational problem. Therefore, organizations need to take the lead with it. But interestingly too, I mean, you’re sort of suggesting that some of the wellness programs that companies do try to are actually not only not solving the problem, but potentially actually making it worse.
We’re seeing from the book, I wrote a chapter on just good intentions in that there are good intentions and that they’re trying to fix the problem. But as we all know, silver bullet solutions never work, and it’s about micro, intentional changes over time that spread and create a culture of wellbeing.
And that means, giving a week off to burnout employees, but not adjusting workload is not helpful. Making your campus all about life on site is not helpful, because people want to go back and be with their families. We’re seeing divorce rates rise and families breaking down, and that’s one of the things that’s really changing actually from this last year, I mean, Hewlett Packer just announced that instead of asking people to stay on site, they’re going to send them home with either meals for their family or meal kits, I mean, their understanding that’s really not been helpful.
Also just the fact that it’s, and I want to make this clear, self care is still important. We still need to take care of ourselves, because we need to think that work isn’t the end on be all, our lives and our happiness and our personal lives have to matter too.
So yes, we’re responsible for our happiness, but our workplace is responsible for not making us unhappy, or for ma- they can’t be responsible for harming us. And so a lot of these intentional pieces that they’re doing, like technology that gets people to meditate or breathe for 30 seconds, it sounds really great and it’s helpful in some ways, but if you’re working 70 hours a week and you have HR saying, “Hey, I want you to download that app and take some time,” then wellbeing becomes workload, and you’re just adding this extra expectation on them.
And again, these other things like creating guidelines around right to disconnect, managers can’t be saying, “I don’t want you to answer your emails on weekends and on vacation,” and they do, or I don’t want you to take a meeting on vacations and weekends but I will, it’s all really about the ecosystem and every single person plays a role, but then institutionally, we need to make changes as well.
So it’d be easy to be quite cynical about some of the wellness initiatives within large organizations, they’re a bit like greenwashing, it’s kind of wellness washing, isn’t it? Well washing, so sounds better. But there is this suspicion that they’ve introduced the yoga and the, whatever the meditation sessions, but they still expect you to audit, they think they will enable you to work 80 hours a week because of that.
It’s so true, and I’m talking to lots of leaders now, as I’m writing the next book and this idea of what has actually changed, if we’re really going to see that the change occur, and if employees actually do have the power, what is going to be the prediction. And they’re saying that we’re trying to actively listen and we can’t ask to have self care like yoga and all these other tools, if we’re not going to actually build in the time for it.
And I think that’s what’s been frustrating, you’re right in this well washing, and I sort of have been a bit cynical and maybe provocative in this thinking around it because I am forcing organizations to be more accountable and more aware of those intentions that are just feeling tone deaf to people.
I mean, I had lots of interviews and one of them was with this woman saying, “I’m so exhausted, then now I’m bending over and sweating doing Zoom yoga with my boss, which is humiliating.” And I appreciate these happy hours on Friday at 4:00, but I just want to be done work, why are we having happy hours at Friday at 4:00 PM? Why don’t we adjust the amount of Zoom meetings we are doing, and gives me some time back in my life and then I’ll deal with my self-care later on.
But it needs to have time provided for people, and there’s one too, there’s one perk, and I write about, “The perks,” is that… The egg freezing, the lots of tech companies are saying, “Hey, there’s this really great perk, I’m going to encourage you to freeze your eggs, so then you can put off family planning.”
I mean, these are the kind of things that it sounds like it’s really fancy and yet really it just has so many invisible pressures. And that is a big part of it right now that we’re seeing is those invisible pressures have to be managed out of our strategy, because even though we think that they’re really nice and generous, they’re actually doing the opposite, it’s really impacting lots of groups, specifically vulnerable, and marginalized, and minority groups.
I’m going to dip into the questions. Anastasia makes the comparison with the myth of Icarus, the guy that flies too high, flies too close to the sun and eventually falls as winner falls to earth. But she also says, beyond meditation practices which have this truly magical effect in many ways, if they’re done well, both physical and emotional, can you please share other key practices that can support, especially the body to regain its balance and resilience?
So I’m, again, psychological fitness has been a big part of my study and research in the neuroscience of happiness. And a lot of it is really understanding that we have the capacity to build in subconscious habits and behaviors by practicing every single day those intentional efforts.
And a lot of people say, “I don’t have time.” And we don’t have a lot of time and time as a privilege for sure, but we should be able to take at least 10 or 15 minutes, every single day at a very specific time, because high levels of conscientiousness right now are extremely important for us to manage uncertainties and to be more well. And if we start to prime our brain with times in the day that we’re going to leave work, even if we have to come back to it, I get it, I’m not going to try to think that the system’s completely, been fixed.
I know we’re going back to work, but if we shut down our computer at a specific time of day, if we take breaks at a specific time of day and do that on repeat, what will start to happen is our body will start to flood itself with healthy chemicals and hormones before that time, because it’s prime to know that is quitting time.
And so we want to start to do things that are very focused on this concept of neuroplasticity, the less we intentionally spend our focus on it, we’ll do what the brain does, which is synaptically delete it. So it’s not intentional, it’s deemed unimportant, and it doesn’t become part of our everyday.
So it’s really about committing to very specific times in the day, and also taking breaks, giving yourselves five minutes back, digitally detox, we need more than ever, and this is Dr. Dalton Smith, she’s a great thinker too, and she writes about our rest deficit.
One of the things that I think is the most biggest rest deficit we have is that social rest. And we need to be around people that give us that effortless state of belonging, those people that just make us feel really calm. We’ve lost that, we’re on Zoom for so much that we’re feeling disconnected. So getting back to those people, that peer support, that really feels like you’re comfortable with them, that also will rebuild our sense of wellbeing.
I suppose, you’ve got to ask where does the responsibility of companies start and finish? And that’s what we’re moving toward really, and to some extent, have we got unrealistic notions of the role companies should, an organization should play in our lives?
Well, I think work can be fuel and it can be a really big part of our enjoyment of life. It can fulfill us, there’s a level of, I think greatness about work that really does support wellbeing, and leaders that get it right, that are doing it right, have really high performing healthy people inside the organization, so it can be done.
It’s really about realizing that so much of the expectation that employees do have is that, I don’t feel, especially after the last 20 years or two years, sorry, I don’t see my work as my identity in the same way, I see it as the, in the relationship that I want to have is it gives me that kind of fuel. I don’t want to feel like it sucks the life out of me, I don’t care enough about a paycheck.
We’re seeing just economists talking about the way that we’ve adjusted lifestyle, and so work isn’t, that relationship is different. And so employers, if they want to hold onto their employees, because it is a bottom line issue now, I mean, attrition is massive. And so they have to step up and people will choose other roles, like a lot of what I’ve been writing about lately is massive career pivots.
I mean, teachers that are giving up pensions after 20 years and in Canada, that pension could mean a million dollars over the course of their retirement. I mean, we pay our teachers well here, but that’s a really significant amount of money to give up to go to a startup or go somewhere else because it’s just so awful being in that role.
And so companies really do need to think about how do I just not suck the life out of my employees as a basic expectation? But also how do I have a really healthy relationship where both of us win? Because all the data shows that if you have healthy, well, not burned out people, you are more competitive, you have higher sales, you’re more productive, you are beat all the other shareholder expectations. It’s just the data points to do this, because it’s good for people, but also it’s good for business. And I think that’s what we need to understand that this relationship is an ecosystem, it’s not us and them. And once we get to that, we’ll see a really exciting future of work.
I think, I mean, trying to put yourself in the shoes of leaders, it’s difficult, isn’t it? Because as you say, when, as you might be very well intentioned and actually have the opposite effect to what you’re trying to do, and if you can be seen to be interfering or taking too much interest in people’s lives, but at the same time you want to be seen as compassionate, you want to be compa- I mean, let’s go further than say, be seen to be, you want to be compassionate. It seems to me it’s a very difficult juggling act. Have you got any advice for leaders who might be listening to the webinar, how you do that?
And it is important for me to let everyone understand that this is definitely going to be a process, and it’s going to take like a long time for us to figure out what the role of a leadership play and what individual should expect. I think we swung the pendulum really far in one direction, which always helps to create transformation, but there needs to be a bit of a swinging back to the middle where there’s more of a Goldie lock zone, we’re not in that yet.
And I think that leaders need to know that they are not mental health professionals, that’s not their expectation, that they are mental health conduits, and they have the knowledge to move people into the right direction where there’s professionals, and supports, and experts, and tools that employees can access.
I think organizations need to ask more questions, direct managers need to be professional ease droppers. And I write about in that book, how do we become more curious? And authentically curious to find out what people are sharing in their language, in this sort of subversive language of their burnout or in their motivation? How do we pick up those cues and give direct managers the power to be able to respond and organizations overall need to provide a lot of different tools that fit different people and making sure that they’re not developing programs in the image of themselves? Remove the bias, remove the privilege, ask people what they need, and ask from lots of different sources, so we get a much more equitable way of treating people.
I mean, this is all solvable, it’s not that hard to do, a lot of it is actually free, it’s just asking and caring more and being more empathetic. So doesn’t require huge budget to make it happen, it’s really about empowerment and active listening.
And so if we do more of that and we let people come to us in their own time, build trust, so they feel like they can, and then we’re going to see the shift. And that I think is where we need to start directing. But again, it’s going to take a very long time and there’s going to be lots of organizations and sectors that are pretty dug into the way it was before, and there just needs to be a tipping point eventually.
Who’s good at this then, Jen? Which organizations do you look at and think, oh yeah, they kind of understand it and they’re doing the right things or which countries have responded well to it, do you think?
I had a really great talk with lots of organizations, I see Hewlett Packer doing a really good job with it, their employee trust and experience score were really high throughout the pandemic because they had already actually built in a lot of this upstream interventions before they were hit with the crisis, so that helped.
And they’re doing a lot of active listening, they’re just asking what people need, listening to all the different ERGs, their resource groups, and finding out what really is mattering to people and what they need, and then adjusting, creating policies, making hybrid options, and lots of different cool things that they’re building into their actual onsite.
We’re seeing Unilever is a great example, they’re doing some really cool stuff. Cisco, again, IBM, some of those really big organizations that have been spending the money for a long time around these processes.
A lot of these companies that had flex work beforehand, didn’t have to adjust so much in the crisis because they already knew how to work in that way, and I think that’s what we need to make sure leaders don’t do is just repeat the same issues so that they don’t fall into a trap in the next crisis because we have to not waste this crisis, this can be an opportunity, we can look at this as a reframing exercise. What are the things we want to pull forward? This is not like the future of work, because I don’t think this was ever going to be the future of work. We were never going to have 300 million people go remote on the same day. This is paradigm shifting, we’re in another, we’re in a Metaverse right now.
So we need to think about what does the Metaverse look like in this future of work? And everything can go that we don’t want to keep, and that’s what’s actually exciting, I think, that’s what’s the, I think the big exciting thought is, we’ve developed cognitive optimism because we’ve dealt with grieving our old life, and now we’ve developed new traditions, we’ve developed social and emotional flexibility, we’ve developed resiliency, which creates this reframing ability.
So when we’re faced with stress in the future, we’re going to be able to go back subconsciously to that point of reference in our brain that says, “Is this a global pandemic? Oh, well, no, then I can probably do it.” This is a lot of things that we’ve developed by proxy of going through this challenge.
And so that’s where we need to start thinking, and the organizations that are doing that really well are the ones that have sort of already been doing it. But now they’re saying, “Okay, this is really a time for me to be totally different, and really emphasize that data gathering that empathetic and human centered style of leadership,” and they’re the ones that are probably going to end up being the Uber versus the taxi in this next, yeah, set era of work.
I mean, you kind of anticipated my next question, because when you were talking about a tipping point, I was going to ask, could the pandemic be at least a step in the direction of some sort of a tipping point? A reframing, there has to be, we keep saying this, there has to be some silver linings to this cloud. You’ve all always got to try to see what the silver linings are, potentially that’s something good that might come out of the pandemic.
We’ve proven as a workforce that we’re extremely resilient and we have the capacity to move mountains. And also often there’s been still, like I said, business as usual, stretch goals in the middle of a massive chronic stress event, and we’ve still been able to beat productivity expectations in a time of pure mental inefficiency.
So we’ve developed a lot of skills, you have to imagine that’s going to play forward. And economists are saying that it’s probably going to be another two years before this sort of great resignation plateau. So we’re looking at a couple years where there’s going to be a lot of employees having expectations that employers will have to address.
And there’s going to be that the tipping point in that, those late adopters will eventually have to manage for this, they will absolutely have to create strategic planning around this and working with so many large multinational organizations, they’ve to put a lot of declarations in and I’ve watched them, making these changes, making it part of their strategic planning.
Once it becomes part of your strategic plan, you start to see the benefits of that, it’s hard to pull that back out. So I do see that there has been a real disruption, especially when it comes to conversations around wellbeing, and mental health, and all of that has changed because of pandemic.
And so, again, I’m not saying that this wasn’t a hard thing for us to go through and we’re still feeling it, there’s still lots of pain from it, and a lot of healing still left to go, but I do have a sense of optimism and I’m seeing it firsthand, the changes that are happening as a result.
How does it affect how you manage your own working life then, Jen?
Well, for a lot of individuals I think there… And I say, we’ve been facing our mortality for two years and that changes you, your priorities totally change. And so I think we’ve started to recognize what really matters for me, I wasn’t traveling for two years, our kids weren’t everything, just as a human being, I have three kids, mother of three, tell me the irony of writing a book on burnout in the middle of a global pandemic with three kids, as a female and a husband who also has a senior role in his organization, there was a lot of juggling, but what we came to understand was that when you are faced with this life or death, sometimes on a day to day basis, it was just, how do I protect my family? It’s very survival instinct that you get down to that basic need to protect your family.
That means that as work and other things come into play, that you still want to maintain that. So you are adjusting your needs, I am adjusting my goals, I’m looking at what growth looks like for me in a sustainable way, how much I want to actually put on my plate and saying no to a lot more things than I ever did before, and people are saying that, they’re saying what and things got stripped away, then they realized I don’t like the work, I don’t just like this thing that I’m doing.
And it became about finding work that solves and satisfies those other needs that we realize we’ve been missing for a long time. And so we’re going to see more of that as employees and as individuals wanting to make sure that all those pieces of the puzzle are integrated into our workday.
And that I think is actually really powerful, that we are realizing that deathbed regrets aren’t going to include, I didn’t send that email out to that client at 11:00. Deathbed regrets is going to be, I didn’t spend time with my family around the dinner table, and that perspective is changing the workforce.
Oh, that’s interesting. We have a question from Monica, from who’s contacting us from Denmark. And as you probably know, we are big fans of Amy Edmondson’s work, she’s number one in our ranking, and a lot of her works around psychological safety and creating environments where people can engage in a positive way.
And Monica asks, how big of a role does creating psychological safety play in ensuring your employees feel like they can speak up? Obviously as active listening, but people also have to verbalize this stuff, and what can organizations do to create that type of environment?
So, Amy Edmondson is a researcher that I such admirer of, I do cite her work in the book, and I talk about psychological safety as being and becoming, especially I think after the 2019 inclusion and the ICD 11, the International Classification of Diseases saying, “Okay, it’s not a medical condition yet,” but I do see a lot of unions and organizations starting to promote psychological safety as being just as important as physical safety training, that’s starting to shift and we’re going to start to see things like right to disconnect laws across the board because we’re seeing how impactful a lack of psychological safety can have on our mental health and physical health.
So that is going to change. I had this really cool conversation with this woman who was involved in being NASA’s sort of post challenger culture evaluation, in challenger within 73 seconds, it crashed, and a lot of that analysis pointed back to the fact that people were not heard at the table, the safety issues were not being brought up.
And so the safety issues play a role, but it was the lack of psychological safety that people felt in being able to speak up that created this catastrophic result. Granted, we’re not going to be dealing with life or death situations everywhere, but in someplaces we are, healthcare, for example, is a great place where we need to prioritize speaking up.
So they instituted this really great way of getting every voice at the table to be heard, and I actually sort of changed it around and I call it the RBG, Black Robe Dissent Meeting, where you are the dissenting voice, and you are just put in that robe for the meeting, and you are all talking about this idea that you want to solve within your group, your team, your organization, and there’s a person and it rotates that has to play the black hat.
And it forces people to have to challenge ideas, and it forces everyone to really think about what could be those counter arguments? And you’re supposed to sort of practice this monthly, really getting people to come up with ways to push back and ensuring too, that just in general, this is Aristotle’s, sorry, Google Aristotle research, where they talked about the reason why they’re high performing teams are high performing is because of these two reasons, emotional sensitivity and turn taking in meetings.
So if you’re hosting a meeting, you want to make sure that everyone takes a turn and if you have an opportunity to give that hat to someone or the robe, the dissenting robe to someone every single month, you’ll start to create these opportunities for dialogue.
And they also have this last intervention. So there’s two, this is the third intervention is non-work related meetings. So half an hour meeting structured like this, where you have people asking, how are you? Hopefully, over time, they’re not going to just say I’m fine because we don’t really mean it when we say we’re fine.
We want to create some format around that and say, what is a high, what is a low for this week? It’s kind of like what we would do with their kids at the end of the night, name a high, name a low, but it’s actually really important format within a non-work related meeting because you get to hear for the signs here, again, professional ease droppers, you get to hear for the signs of burnout like people saying I’m really tired or I’m stressed, or those folks right now that are sandwich between putting their mom in assisted living and their kids through university, you’re starting to hear those kind of things, and then you can support, maybe it’s here, this is our financial planning product that we have inside of our EAP, that’ll help you save for both.
Here, you’re stressed, how can I take something off your plate? Or you’re motivated you keep talking about how you love the theater, well, here, I’m going to motivate you with theater tickets, when you do something really awesome.
And then finally, it’s what can we do as a team to make next week easier? So you’re constantly creating this consistency and frequency around solving problems together as a unit, and over time, it builds that trust, and then you’ll have more people being able to tell you how they’re feeling, and that creates more psychological safety.
So those are three interventions that I think I’ve tested, work really, really well. We saw in NASA, they completely changed their culture around, and now they invite everyone to the table to dissent, and that has proven to be very successful for them and has eliminated a lot of those catastrophic results.
I suppose, historically, that you didn’t get promoted for emotional sensitivity, or active listening, or necessarily curiosity, and until those things change that people get promoted and rewarded for these things, it’s unlikely to move forward.
So I guess you do get rewarded for performance and I think what we are and what Jen’s saying is actually this is a smarter way to get better performance, but so it’s not completely at odds, sorry, I didn’t mean to jump in.
No, I think you’re right, but you’re both right in that, you can show up with higher performance, but until we’re really attaching those key performance metrics, those indicators to some of the things that we haven’t really defined as successful leadership attributes before, we need to say that if you can, through active listening, uncover certain needs for employees and you’re showing that their life satisfaction, job satisfaction, engagement, productivity are going up, then you can start to attach those matter.
And we attach, even just productivity and engagement is like a measure. Well, you can have extremely burned out people that are highly engaged. And so I think we have to start to look at what we see as success, and how we measure that, and how we define performance and finding, which again, we have these downstream measures that say, “This is what we look like.”
Yeah. We’ve been productive, everyone’s touting, okay, close all the offices, we show productivity, it was two months in and you saw it like massive hit on commercial real estate, but now we’re seeing that the pendulums wonk people are super lonely, and they want to be back and collaborate with people, and that’s actually really bad for wellbeing and we hit productivity goals, but we were working 30% more, and working after hours, and have added how many hours in our Workday.
So that is, I think there’s a point to be made in that we need to change and adjust the way that we look at holistically at what is success within an organization and making it sustainable because we’re going to become obsolete if we can’t keep 50% of our staff and we’re turning them over every single year.
You mentioned measurements, does that mean, I mean, should we be also trying to measure failure? I mean, should organizations be measuring the level of burnout or the level of kind of the psychological wellbeing of their people, is that the other side of this and is that even possible to do that?
It absolutely is, I mean, right now, we want to create more interest and awareness around even measuring for burnout, it’s not something that everyone’s doing. We’re starting to see more questions around wellbeing inside of the larger data gatherings that we do, but we have a lot of looking back surveys.
So we’re looking back at last year and we’re not looking at predictive models of data gathering, like asking someone even inside of a survey, which has been something that I’ve really focused on, and our researchers have in our work is saying, “How do you feel right now? But how do you predict you’ll feel in three months from now?” So you can really tell if someone is in a compressed workload, you see accountants dealing with like I feel really stressed now, but I know in three months it’ll be over and I’ll be okay, or you see people saying this is not getting any better.
And you can tell, where people are at and where they’re going. So getting better at just knowing where, what is the potential risk and dealing with it more, but also realizing that we are data gatherers as leaders, we have this capacity to be learning, and moving, and being agile. So, so much of what I see is this concept of being married to a way of being, I’m married I can’t let go of that, this is my big project, my big program, and I spend all this money and put all this money into communications around this thing.
We have to do less of those big programmatic efforts and instead do tiny trials and testing them out within teams and asking, just verbatims from people and taking our own measures, and then being able to all network that up to the people that then can start to operationalize, it’s very difficult to ask leaders to operationalize these giant projects, it exhausts people.
But if we have this just sort of fluid way of working through this process of growth, and like mental health and sustainable growth, then I think we’ll start to see the evolving change, and the way that we measure big programs versus just day-to-day intentional behaviors changing is very different.
Jen, we’re going to running out of time, but where does your work go next? You talked about a new book.
Yeah. So I’m starting on this process of the new book, which I wasn’t thinking it would be this soon, but there’s, we’re in a data-rich world right now, and there’s a lot of stuff happening in this novel way, and my curiosity just isn’t holding me back right now.
So we’re embarking on that, but then I’m doing some other stuff, developing a LinkedIn learning course, actually that’s going to be launching in September and writing quite a few articles that are in series for Harvard Business Review.
So continuing just evolve the conversation and not just around burnout, but really around now, like what has happened and what I really want to be able to document what’s changing and then be able to evaluate how much is actually changed when we start to see the stasis. And that is my goal right now is initiating research that follows what the trends look like and how they’re actually going to unveil themselves in the next couple of years.
Well, thank you very much for joining us today, Jen. Thank you everyone for who’s joined us live. Check out Jennifer Moss’s book, The Burnout Epidemic, published by Harvard Business Review. Check out her website, jennifermoss.com, really important work, I mean, redefine, I mean, what Jen’s doing I think is redefining success for individuals and organizations.
So it couldn’t be more important, so check out her work and our articles in the Harvard Business Review as well. Thank you for joining us, next week, we’re going to be joined by Paul Carlile, discussing The Future of Business Education. Thank you and goodbye.