MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

One Life: How we forgot to live meaningful lives

By: Morten Albaek

Never before in history have so many humans suffered from depression, anxiety, and stress. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 300 million people struggle with depression – equivalent to 4.4 percent of the world’s population, with even more suffering from anxiety and stress. Therefore, it is critical to understand why those of us, especially in prosperous countries with high living standards, continue to get sick, particularly due to work-related stress. Studies have consistently shown purpose and meaningfulness to be essential for performance and mental health in a work place. As a result, human beings are increasingly seeking purpose and meaning in their life. Key to unlocking meaning is the idea that we are all one human being, regardless of the context.

It is the purpose of this book to ensure we stop separating our persona into a working human being and private human being, and instead see ourselves as one human being, with one life in one lifetime.

Book review by Paul Carter:

I read ‘One Life – How we forgot to live meaningful lives before the coronavirus pandemic. Back then, I was too busy to review this “antidote to the lethal absurdity of work-life balance”.

But now, writing a review is a welcome distraction from working and living in lockdown. The Danish author Morten Albaek may have been inspired by Scanda-noir fiction as the preface begins with his family uniting for his father’s funeral, where Albaek’s fear of wasting his life at work is the inciting incident for his mission to help people find meaning rather than happiness in their lives.

Albaek posits the theory that happiness is a fleeting moment in an individual’s life and with work playing such a fundamental role in this enigmatic emotion, it’s important to understand how meaning can increase our sense of satisfaction. He explores inhuman management, professional intimacy and platonic love, humanistic capitalism and other enriched experiences that transcend the workplace to affect every aspect of our lives.

Before you can read about this, like all deep thinkers, Albaek wants to have his say. He unleashes his stream of consciousness about philosophers, forsaking pleasure, existential malnutrition and how UN indicators influence our perception of happiness and satisfaction. To be fair, he comes across as authentic. I could imagine joining him in a beige meeting room for a deep and meaningful conversation on how to feel more hopeful about the world beyond the window blinds.

Failing that, as is common in most workplaces, we could talk about football to understand and share our feelings. Albaek references Robert Enke, the former Germany and Barcelona goalkeeper, who took his own life after suffering from clinical depression and the tragic loss of his daughter. He wants to know why such a skilled professional could have had such “incredibly low self-worth that he thought life was no longer worth living”.

What is our self-worth?

Albaek does not medicalise the debate. His unpacking of self-confidence and self-doubt explores how our surroundings and relationships shape our actions and behaviours and the notion that we’re only as good as the last thing we did. Whatever our profession, a mistake at a crucial moment, constantly performing under the spotlight, and our abilities being questioned can leave us struggling and competing with each other to climb “the ladder of self-respect”.

But what are we climbing towards? “Ultimately, we are defined by the sum of our actions”. Not just what we achieve at the end of our careers, but all the time. What we add up to and how easily we can be divided and reduced highlights the duality between our motivation for success and the more destructive questioning of our self-worth.

Although this book reads like an unfolding mid-life crisis, it is an empowering and insightful look at our pursuit for wealth, power and reputation. For those familiar with the 1970’s TV sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, this book is a woke update of that middle-aged reinvention to fight back against the disappointments of life. Instead of faking suicide to be the new you, you change your mindset, build self-respect by staying true to your values and embrace the unpredictability of life.

Beyond the terminology to be our true selves

Albaek manages the tonal shift of self-help to workplace sociology with his exploration of the management experience. “So, why are so many managers so bad at their jobs they trigger stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness in their employees?” While this topic has no expiry date, fact-based academic writing or investigative reportage would be more insightful than the existentialist approach to describing the influence that managers have on our wellbeing and how to manage upwards to regain control of our meaning, purpose and job satisfaction.

Like many people, Albaek does not like the term ‘Human Resources’ as a “resource is something you extract, exploit and consume in order to obtain a competitive advantage.” While I understand Albaek’s perspective on HR being a dehumanising term, I believe HR has reinvented itself to add credibility to the corporate commitment of people being our greatest asset, and being a profession that has the skills and knowledge to support the business.

Albaek challenges jargon and terminology, but has no problem with asking managers to be “chief meaningfulness officers”. Unfortunately, well-intentioned job titles can disrupt innovation and culture change. Therefore, read this book to understand the human journey of work and why “wellbeing is inextricably linked to the meaning of our jobs” then translate it into your language and business plans.

Melodic optimism

I must have found this book informative owing to the number of folded page corners, but will I have the time to re-read and apply the wise words? Time will tell. Despite the book beginning with death, it has a melodic theme and a call for action to live meaningful lives individually and as a society.

Instead of a thrilling climax the ending feels like watching a montage of people discovering the subtext of their existence as they respond to emails, manage teams, hold one-to-one conversations, stand up for others and set boundaries between life and work as soft rock music plays in the background. The coronavirus can’t stop that.

About the book review’s author Paul Carter:

Paul Carter is a Senior HR Consultant at Civil Service Employee Policy in London. He has worked in HR for five years after spending 10 years in communications and committee management. He is CIPD qualified and writes HR blogs to encourage debate on how to make the world of work a better place. Writing and running help him manage his mental health and he is determined to raise awareness of what living with Pure OCD is like. He is always interested in meeting new people and exploring new opportunities.