The way we are working, the economic models and the organisational cultures that evolve from those models are costing us dear at the personal, corporate and national levels. 

A silent, invisible epidemic of mental illness is sweeping our societies and having a massive impact on the economy.. Business is being hit where it hurts, the bottom line, which means people in high places are now sitting up and taking notice. 

In the UK, the estimated annual costs to business of mental ill health (£33-42bn), the losses in productivity this causes (£32bn) and the costs to the NHS (£3bn), add up to £68-77bn per annum. 

And this is before we get to counting the costs of stress-related illnesses that we call physical. 

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, it’s becoming rapidly apparent that the way we are working is making us sick. Stress is a major factor in all forms of illness today. The modern workplace is a major source of stress. The epidemic in what we call ‘mental’ ill health is not a result of an individual’s failings but a systems failure on a grand scale. Coupled with the impact of political and economic policies, the costs of the way we are doing things is fast proving that the system itself is sick. 

At the corporate level, the way we are working is becoming obsolete. 20th century leadership styles still predominate and the people at the top are struggling to adapt because at some level they realise that the very mechanisms which support them at being at the top are in themselves obsolete. The hierarchical edifice of the pyramid is crumbling. It has to. Because that way of doing business is no longer “fit-for-purpose” and it’s proving very costly at human and corporate levels.

But the people at the top are stuck in a paradox.They recognise that the way they have been doing things isn’t working any more. Too rigid, too top-down, too static. Yet at the same time, the changes they need to make threaten their own survival, or more explicitly their bonuses. So fear kicks in. 

When fear kicks in, it becomes about individual survival. That’s the way the brain works. When my survival is at stake, it’s all about getting me out of the situation. The higher centres of the brain go off line and more basic level survival skills kick in. There is no time for worrying about the other guy, thinking collectively, acting collaboratively. Fear makes us rigid. Creativity, connectedness  and adaptability go out the window. Behaviour becomes individualistic. At the very time we need to act collectively, responsively, for the good of all, guided by our higher values, we are least likely to do so, no matter how big those values might be written on the posters on the company walls. 

In the 20th century business world, it was all about the corporate athlete, the bullet-proof executive, toughening up as individuals. This cellular self-concept is part of the problem and contravenes everything we know about what makes people tick, let alone feel good about themselves, thrive or work well together. This atomistic notion of self feeds into and derives from a world view which some would argue got us into the mess we are now realising we are in. 

The planet and its resources are finite. Paraphrasing Kate Raworth, rather than striving to have an economy that grows regardless of whether we thrive, we need to urgently shift to an economic model where we and the planet thrive whether of not the economy grows. As David Attenborough pointed out, how can you have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources? Resources which UNICEF predicts will sustain us at the current level of consumption for about another 60 years at the most. 

As with the planet, so too with humans. Treating people as resources, as units of productivity whose performance managers must enhance, takes us back to the early days of the industrial revolution. Rather than measuring engagement, if we step back for a moment we see that the very measuring in itself signifies and perpetuates the disconnect and attitude that is at the heart of the problem. Exhaustion and engagement are mutually exclusive. Squeeze it too hard and even a stone might bleed.

The way we are working derives from the dominant global economic model which in turn generates the organisational culture, “the way we do things around here”. And that  “way we do things around here” is proving to have huge unexpected costs both at the micro and the macro levels. We can now count those costs in financial terms which means people are starting to pay attention. Productivity at an all time low, longterm sickness absence at an all time high, businesses are being run badly and going bust. We are in a global crisis of trust and acedia, which is making people ill. How can we loosen this seemingly Gordian knot?

Taking a wider view we see that the macro and micro are inter-dependent, that personal and global and intertwined, that trans-disciplinary systems thinking helps us join up the dots. 

First, physiology. Stress is a state where the internal and external resources available to us are outstripped by the demands upon us. It’s a protective mechanism to get us out of trouble when we feel under threat, a physiological response to help us fight the tiger or run away from it as fast as we can. In that fight or flight reaction, we metabolise the chemicals in the body that are released to produce this response. 

Stuck behind a computer screen, eating lunch at our desks with in-mails and emails pinging in all around us, sitting in meetings going nowhere with a pile of work on the desk, that stress response is constantly being triggered but with nothing to physically fight against and nowhere to run to, no means to dissipate the physiological changes. And it’s these chemical changes in the body cause longterm damage to the body, which includes the brain.

Second, epidemiology. Levels of chronic illness are rising and represent an estimated 75% of the economic burden of health care. Many such chronic illnesses are stress-related in part if not in whole. Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive system malfunctions and immune conditions all have their origins in the inflammatory responses caused by an excess of the stress reaction chemicals. A large amount of data suggests that the biggest source of stress in people’s lives is the workplace. Is the workplace making us sick? Is much mental illness best thought of an environmental problem?

Third, socio-economics. We are now in the foothills of the 4th industrial revolution. The way we work needs to change not just because monolithic organisational structures, silo-thinking, top-heavy leadership styles and behaviours driven by profit alone are obsolete, but because these models by which we organise the workplace are causing enormous damage. Damage that we can count the cost of as being between £68-77bn per annum  in the UK for mental illness alone.  

Fourth, trans-disciplinary. We need to transform our organisational cultures and economic models, think environmentally, connect whole-heartedly as people, and put the human being, our mutual wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet back at the heart of what we do and why we do it. 

Fifth, business and politics. The changes businesses need to make to adapt to the 4th industrial revolution may actually prove to be the changes that untangle that Gordian knot. They may release the relentless pressure on humans to perform faster, better, more productively and restore the sense of balance, meaning and connectedness that are essential for human flourishing. 

If the people in high places can grab the nettle, there is hope. In the mean time, we can explain scientifically what we all instinctively know, that the ways of being that promote social cohesion are also those that promote our own wellbeing. We can each, on a daily basis, by the way we interact with each other, create an environment that fosters our own and each others’ thriving. 

Perhaps, as Rebecca Solnit pointed out, the lack of leadership in the world is because we need to stop being followers and realise that we are the agents of change. In a globally connected culture where everyone matters, then everyone thrives, everyone wins and mother nature can breathe a sigh of relief.

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