Business as a platform for humans flourishing: now what do we do with that?
14th January 2022
Author: Eileen McNeely, Executive Director Sustainability and Health (SHINE), Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University
COVID-19 made it clear that work represents more to us than just a paycheck. The so-called 'Great Resignation' – with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recording some 4.5 million workers left their jobs in November 20211– may reflect burnout or the experience of greater freedom in remote work or a rethinking of life purpose and better opportunities.
Whatever the reasons, employees are leaving the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Leaders, therefore, need to consider more carefully the impact of work on individuals and the entire work community.
The key question then is, ‘How do organisations help employees and the business to thrive?’
The old paradigm of thriving no longer works
For more than 30 years, the question about thriving at work, from the employer’s perspective, was mostly about risk mitigation; how to keep workers safe and limit turnover. The guardrails for risk mitigation were simple: first, occupational health and safety regulations kept injuries in check; second, the marketplace kept wages stable enough to limit job churn, and; third, some companies offered superior benefits and perks to attract and retain talent. These tangible employer benefits alone, however, did little to address the innate needs of workers during COVID to thrive in their work, including the chance to thrive together as a community. While Millennials and Gen Z workers2have reputedly expressed a desire for businesses to be both socially and environmentally responsible, they also want jobs to imbue a shared purpose, work-life balance, and autonomy. COVID-19 has made the pursuit of acceptable and meaningful work a universal and multi-generational goal.
What are the intangible benefits of work?
Decades of research show that ‘good’ jobs foster learning and mastery, self-efficacy and autonomy, meaning, purpose and satisfaction, a sense of belonging and inclusion, social support and financial security.3,4,5These human needs are nurtured in workplaces that demonstrate respect for fairness and equity, psychological safety and trust, recognition, caring and empathy for individuals and the community beyond. All this is in addition to providing a safe and comfortable physical environment. Many studies, including our own SHINE research6, demonstrate how these work resources nourish our well-being, in addition to supporting successful business outcomes.
What can we understand about the impact of work in our lives from the 'canary in the coal mine'?
I learned the significant value of the intangible benefits of work early in my career. As a clinician treating coal miners, I was struck by how many workers really liked their jobs despite the real and present danger of contracting Black Lung Disease. Many had relatives and dear friends who were disabled or died from the disease. Yet, the miner’s social community and sense of support, including their own physical safety, depended on relationships with co-workers and extended into after work gatherings and residential communities, was sustenance to them and their families. Ironically, the lesson for me was akin to the ‘canary in the coal mine’ i.e., a dying canary warns workers in the environment of imminent dangers that were invisible to their senses. The value of work goes beyond tangible employment benefits such as wages and individual job satisfaction and is directly tied to the functioning of the larger work community and a sense of belonging. We may need these conditions, metaphorically, to ‘breath’, and we may miss the warning signs of declining conditions without a good sensor (a canary) or acknowledgement.
At the recent 2021 gathering of the Harvard SHINE Summit 7, Peter Senge in his keynote referred to this work phenomenon as the ‘network of collaboration’ and ‘networks of loving relationships’. The warning for human resources professionals and health care providers, who tend to focus on the individual and not the system in which people live, work, play, and thrive (except, perhaps, in terms of the physical health and safety conditions), is that the larger psychosocial environment is critical when it comes to individual thriving. Case in point, the current trends in mental illness and disability where, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, during the early pandemic in June 2020 some 40% of U.S. adults were struggling with mental health or substance use8.
Is well-being at work the providence of the individual or the organisation?
To determine the impact of work on our lives, the SHINE research team explores whether individuals adopt a sense of well-being from their home life or their work life. Do employees thrive in life and bring their best selves to work, or does work actually fill them up? Interestingly, the exchange of benefits between inside and outside of work are bi-directional; both arenas contribute to an individual’s well-being at work and in life. However, some human needs are filled mostly at work, namely social connection and belonging. Interestingly, our social networks at work are not intentionally targeted for nurturing – in contrast to individual tasks and growth. Maybe this focus reflects the transactional nature of individual work arrangements, i.e., individuals are hired to perform certain duties in exchange for benefits and wages. However, the social networks of the workplace appear necessary for individuals and organisations to truly flourish.
How does one account for the psychosocial conditions that help us flourish at work?
The number of metrics of well-being at work has grown exponentially in recent years, usually focusing on a few outcomes of interest. In collaboration with the Center for Human Flourishing at Harvard, SHINE has developed a model and dashboard that captures an individual’s experience of well-being, the drivers that feed it, and the business impact, in order to better understand strategies for change9. While most of the measures reflect job level experience, we added measures to gauge leadership and organisational climate in order to capture the ambient culture for health. We found that a summative index of caring, trust, safety, fairness, and respect explains a significant amount of job performance and well-being at work. These results agree with other findings about the positive benefits associated with a compassionate climate10 and a climate of psychological safety11.
What will it take to make business a platform for flourishing?
In 2019, the Business Roundtable set out a new statement of purpose that ‘Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity.’12As Jamie Dimond, Chair of the Business Roundtable and Chair/CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co. said, ‘Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term’13.
This contrasts materially with the previous position, where people were held to be simply a means to profit. This new position statement carefully considers the value and social responsibility of corporations to help develop a new mindset/platform that includes their impact on people –similar to how companies consider their social responsibility for the planet.
I contend that for this vision to invest in people and good jobs to be realised, companies must collect data from employees and other stakeholders about their lived experiences. Many investment managers in ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) portfolios consider the lift too much to ask. They prefer publicly available proxies, such as staff turnover that may simply be the canary in the coal mine. We need to go further. We now have research-informed, evidence-based measures. We know the human and societal tragedy of not paying attention to what is happening to workers, especially considering the trauma of the recent pandemic. So, let us make flourishing at work as a right and not an option.
10 Nolan, M.T., Diefendorff, J., Erickson, R.J. & Lee, M.T. (2022). Psychological compassion climate: Examining the nomological network of perceptions of work group compassion. Journal of Vocational Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2021.103688
12 Business Roundtable Redefines the Purpose of a Corporation to Promote ‘An Economy That Serves All Americans’. https://www.businessroundtable.org/business-roundtable-redefines-the-purpose-of-a-corporation-to-promote-an-economy-that-serves-all-americans