Let’s begin by taking perspective on what we know: we know that improving mental health is a positive both for individuals and businesses. Crucially, we also know that there are things we can do to positively impact mental health. Take, for example, the 8 Practices for a Life Well Lived from Professor Kelly Wilson of the University of Mississippi . In short, his practices are:
1. Minimise your exposure to chemical and social toxins (the latter simply referring to ensuring that we don’t spend all of our time in emotionally unpleasant environments)
2. Ensure you get enough sleep
3. Eat highly nutritious foods
4. Move your body every day
5. Practice mindfulness every day
6. Cultivate positive social networks
7. Do something every day that contributes to a sense of meaning or purpose
8. Practice small acts of self-compassion
But do we really look after ourselves?
These aren’t a silver bullet, nor are they the single authorised list of practices for improving wellbeing. I include them because you’ve no doubt seen them before. But here is a question: do you actually do all of those things? Do you make time for them in your working day? If you are a manager do you create the space for your team to do the same?
If your answers to those questions are a resounding ‘yes’ then congratulate yourself. You are demonstrating that resilience is a practice and no doubt reaping the benefits. You may, however, have read it and noticed some gaps (just how much do I do that meditation practice?) If you’re a leader in business you might even have thought about the environment your people are exposed to (is it a positive social network or one full of social toxins?)
Taking a step back
Organisations like Business in The Community and the Mad World Forum offer so many positive examples of great practice in mental health but I think we need to take a step back and consider the challenges faced by employees and leaders implementing, so that we can ensure that we create the kind of environments that empower individuals to improve wellbeing and build resilience. I think there are two challenges that we need to acknowledge.
Challenge 1: the winds of change
Talk to anyone in a corporate role and you’ll rarely hear the environment described as ‘stable’. It is not uncommon for people to undergo yearly restructuring and, if not, a major change project. Indeed, in Deloitte’s 2017 Human Capital Trends report, 88% of over 10,000 leaders saw ‘Building the Organisation of the Future’ as an important task. The pace of change is unlikely to slow down.
Change tends to have two effects. First, it demands of us that we do things that we are not used to, perhaps have never done before. Second, it drains us of time. Time that we could be using to do those very things that make us more resilient to change in the first place: it is a classic vicious cycle.
Challenge 2: the digital elephant in the room
Much of the changes we are seeing in businesses is driven by technology. That changing technology is a further challenge to our minds. Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley from University of California, San Francisco, argues that the way that we engage with technology means that we are more distracted. In his words, we have ‘ancient minds in a high-tech world’ and we are suffering a cognition crisis. At the very least we risk becoming more distractible. At worst, our relationship with technology presents yet another risk to mental health.
Put these two factors together: the challenge of organisational change and an increasingly distracted mind cognition crisis; and we have a recipe for reduced wellbeing and worsening mental health. At best, this is not the kind of context in which we can do our best thinking or bring our highest levels of creativity.
Reasons to be (cautiously) cheerful
I don’t mean to paint an apocalyptic picture here. We are not doomed. In his book, the Distracted Mind, written with Larry Rosen, Gazzaley offers some very familiar recommendations for dealing with the cognition crisis that he articulates:
1. Take time away from technology
4. Train attention
The parallels with the 8 practices I referenced earlier are clear. Maybe there is no such thing as a new idea but there are many good ideas that never quite got implemented.
Resilience practices are not a silver bullet. We can’t meditate or run ourselves out of the challenges of the modern working world. But these things are the foundation on which we can build, on which we can be more thoughtful about how we enact the changes that are being asked of us.
How can we keep wellbeing on the agenda?
If change isn’t going away and technology is only getting more distracting, what can we do to ensure that wellbeing and resilience stays on the agenda? What might get in the way of creating environments in which people really prioritise wellbeing? Recently, in development programmes, my colleagues and I have been talking about the 4Rs of change. These are the key influences on organisational behaviour change. I believe they apply to wellbeing as much as any other major change:
1. Rules – the rules of the game at work: is individual wellbeing really important or given ‘lip service’?
2. Routines – the working practices and habits that we adopt: are resilience practices part of the routine or what we do when the ‘real work’ is done?
3. Rewards – the actions that get reinforced: what are the (often subtle) consequences of taking time out to look after one’s health? What do people learn they have to sacrifice if they want to get ahead in their career?
4. Relationships – the people around us and the influence they have: are there supportive networks around wellbeing and resilience?
I believe that organisations need to think about these four areas to develop a really meaningful wellbeing strategy, one that is itself resilient to the ever-blowing winds of change.
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