The Modern Workplace is Broken

I’ve been thinking a lot about workplace wellbeing lately, both in the context of how the environments I have worked in have impacted my productivity, health and relationships; and having read Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book “Dying for a Paycheck”, in the context of the effects modern working practices may be having on our health and wellbeing.

If social media is to be believed, the modern workplace is a flexible, empowered, conscious place which promotes wellbeing, purpose and balance. But the reality for most feels like it’s very different. Job engagement is low. Distrust in management is high. Job satisfaction according to most metrics is low and has been in continual decline. The gig economy is becoming more prevalent, economic insecurity is growing, and wage growth overall has stagnated. Coupled with the fact people are working longer hours than ever and feeling more nervous about the stability of their jobs because of Brexit, automation or outsourcing, I think it’s time we thought seriously about the role the workplace plays in the health of society.

Up to 15 million people in the UK are living with a Chronic disease. There is a significant amount of literature that suggests that diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome — and many health-relevant individual behaviours such as overeating and under exercising — come from stress. There is a large amount of data that suggests that one of the biggest sources of stress is the workplace. Surely, given the healthcare costs of chronic disease these issues should be addressed at the highest level.

I have worked in and around the tech space for a long time — a sector that seems on the face of it to take this stuff seriously. Tech firms have to compete fiercely for a limited pool of talent, so it was in this space that a lot of the more Instagram friendly workplace “culture” practices were born. Take a look at the career’s pages of most big tech firms and you will be greeted by smiling millennials lounging on beanbags or enjoying a group yoga session on the company’s indoor beach. But are in-office yoga classes, team massages and “sleep pods” really having a positive enough effect on the health of employees? These firms play to their employee’s egos. They say, “What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you good enough? We’re a special business. We’re changing the world and only certain people are going to be up for the task.” Who wants to admit they’re not good enough? And we are influenced by what we see our colleagues doing. People’s friends and peers are working themselves to death. What makes them think they’re so special that they don’t have to?

We are working longer hours than ever, but economists continue to wrestle with a labour market paradox: high levels of employment producing virtually no growth at all. Part of the answer must lie in so-called “presenteeism”: the low productivity of people who are physically present at work but who, for a variety of reasons, are not contributing all that they could. This culture has impacts beyond productivity, or lack thereof. Most of the new Dad’s I know never see their children during the week and are often too tired and stressed at the weekends to play an active and present role in their family’s lives. We have come to normalise the unacceptable.

I feel incredibly lucky. I work for a tech firm now. Not one of the big ones with sleep pods and free massages, but one that offers what I have come to realise is the most important factor in promoting my own workplace wellbeing — freedom and trust. I commute into London about 3 days a week. I choose to get into work early and leave early (more accurately, my 2-year-old waking at 4am chooses for me). I choose to have a lunch break at 11am or 2pm so I can go to the gym when it’s quiet. If I left an hour later in the morning, I wouldn’t be able to move for commuters. The reality seems to be that most people just don’t have the freedom to choose how and when they work.

The benefits of being given this freedom are huge. I am undoubtedly healthier, and because I feel trusted to manage my time within reason, I am definitely more productive. I may even work longer hours than I might have otherwise when you factor in the odd bit of work on the train and in the evenings. But I never feel as if I have to do this, so it doesn’t cause stress. Most importantly though, I get to spend real time with my family. Getting home every evening in time to bath my kids is worth more than any amount of money.

Thankfully, ethical business is becoming much more mainstream thanks in no small part to initiatives such as bcorporation who are using the power of business as a force for good. But it is surely time for more companies to recognise the responsibilities they have not just towards their employees, but the social environment in which they operate.

I don’t have all the answers, but I strongly suspect that if more companies offered truly modern, flexible working practices, we would see an increase in productivity and a decrease in workplace stress — surely that’s a win win?