What is Healthy Work?

A few things have happened over the last couple of months that have sparked my interest in this question… coaching conversations with seriously talented people who are close to burn-out. Listening to a podcast on the phenomenon of “hyper-productivity” as an identity, leading to organisational culture organised by stress states.  Reading a World Economic Forum article that opened with “healthy economies depend on healthy people – how do we achieve both?” A tweet from Lynda Gratton – “we become healthy when we do healthy work”. So, what is healthy work? 

To answer this question, I first want to understand the role that human agency plays and why talent is starting to self-select for organisations prioritising and investing in a healthy culture. Secondly, we’ll look at managers as the main conduit for engagement and productivity and the behaviours they need to master, in order to promote psychological safety and why this is so critical to innovation.  I argue that both flexibility/  an agile mindset and a greater focus on rest and recovery is the basis for work that has human sustainability at its core. And, we’ll consider the relationship between healthy work and a healthy identity, in other words, the meaning of work for humans in the 21st century. Put simply, I believe that human health is wealth. 

How healthy is your organisational culture? 

We’ve all read headlines about robots taking human jobs. The Chinese government’s approach to robotization includes the 4 D’s – any job that’s Dull, Dirty, Dangerous or Dear (expensive) will be automated in the future.  There is a fifth D – work (of any kind) should not be Detrimental to human health and yet the data is telling an alarming story of burnout, absenteeism and presenteeism. Declining psychological health across the workforce continues to be in the headlines. It begs the question – should certain jobs or indeed entire organisations in the future carry a health warning?  

Forward thinking employers understand the need for a very different kind of value exchange. Training budgets are thin, final salary pensions on their way out and average tenure in UK organisation’s currently sits at less than 5 years, in the US it’s just over 4 years. Employee experience (EX) puts the needs of employees front and centre, organisations are beginning to borrow tools and techniques from customer experience (CX) in order to delight and inspire humans at every stage of their employee journey, from interview to exit. However, the likes of LinkedIn and Glassdoor continue to be awash with horror stories from professional people who are ghosted part way through an interview process or never receive feedback and far too many people are still leaving organisations due to unsustainable workload, or bosses behaving badly. Herein, lies the opportunity. 

“We want to change the relationship with our employees; a move away from paternalism towards partnership.” – David Osborn, ITV, Group HR Director (April 2021) 

A partnership promises a very different dynamic between employer and employee. It signifies a relationship of equals (adult to adult) where; I’m trusted and I get to take responsibility for my learning and career development, including when and where I work. Psychologists understand that giving a person more control, more autonomy, is important for good psychological health, indeed some argue that autonomy meaning choice, maybe the single most important element for engagement in a company. Let me illustrate this with a real-life example. A conversation with a female L&D professional returning to work after the birth of her second child stands out. She told me, “The thing that matters most, the thing that makes the greatest difference to my ability to perform at my best, is knowing that, if one of my children is sick or something happens, I can take time to fix the problem, no questions asked. I don’t have to explain myself.”  

“Hybrid work is about flexibility and we know that people are much healthier, mentally and physically, if they have flexibility… “Flexibility about time and flexibility about place” – Lynda Gratton, LBS 

In addition to autonomy – competence and relatedness are also important emotional needs that contribute to psychological wellbeing. Competence, is the need to produce desired outcomes, to experience mastery and relatedness is the need to feel connected to others – all three need to be satisfied in daily activity. What’s particularly interesting is that of the three, it is relatedness, that contributes most strongly to intrinsic motivation. In summary, feeling safe, accepted and appreciated, is integral to healthy work. Meaning, the emotional needs of humans become the foundational building blocks of a healthy culture where talent is able to thrive. Without good psychological and physical health; humans cannot think, learn or create. 

The rise of employee activism denotes a growing intolerance towards employers where the culture is toxic or where systemic inequities proliferate. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else it’s that life is short and that work should serve our lives and not the other way around. Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world. This includes choosing to work for organisations and leaders who really care about their people and understand the productivity upside of a happy and healthy workforce. 

Are your people managers emotionally effective? 

Let’s turn our attention to the role of managers; managers need to own team performance. Managers are the main conduit for engagement and productivity; as such it is their responsibility to create an environment that is conducive to healthy working practices. I’ve been lucky enough to work for some incredible; fast paced, high growth companies and at the heart of extraordinary performance, human emotion. You can find out more about my experience of leading high performing teams, in a piece I wrote last year, the emotional life of teams. 

It begs the question, do employees in the 21st century understand what it means to be and feel healthy or has the pace of work and life over the past 20 years meant that we’ve forgotten what it feels like to be in a resting state; to find balance between rest and recovery and being productive. So often when I coach people, they tell me that everything on their to-do list is urgent. The “always on” phenomenon, is experienced by human’s neuro-chemically, the stress hormone cortisol, is part of the bodies fight or flight response. However, for many cortisol along with caffeine are simply a way of life with potentially devastating long-term consequences. 

Workloads that contribute to long working hours are in the control of managers, regular 12–14-hour days will eventually lead to employee burnout. Also, in the managers domain, giving employees more or less control e.g., flexible working. Fairness too, is in the manager’s gift, do not underestimate the impact on a team of a promotion unfairly given or manager feedback being unclear or poorly judged leading to feelings of injustice and ultimately stress and disengagement. Organisational injustice kills engagement dead. Why then, does manager training so often focus on technical skill development where social and emotional skill development including emotional self-awareness has the greatest impact on human performance. 

There exists a massive untapped opportunity for managers to help their team members to find meaning and value in their work. That starts with clarity from leaders on vision and strategy. No less important, is the role of the manager in developing trusted relationships with their team. The power of coaching conversations to catalyse alignment between employee ambition and sense of purpose and organisational purpose, cannot be underestimated. In practice, this means putting people before task, really getting to know your people, encouraging them to go on a journey of self-discovery. Helping them to grow their self regard, meaning I understand my strengths and weaknesses and accept myself warts and all. Self-regard alongside, purpose, trusted relationships and optimism are the 4 emotional intelligence traits critical to humans feeling a sense of happiness or contentment.  

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This brings me on to a final point about manager capability for the 21st century; creating a sense of community and being intentional every day about your impact on others. This starts with emotional self awareness, the ability to understand how my thoughts and feelings impact the way I behave. Every people manager has a responsibility to help their people to feel safe, in practice this means being a role model for 3 distinct behaviours; curiosity – being open to new ideas and feedback, empathy – the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes and finally humility – knowing that I can always learn, I don’t have all the answers. These are cited by Prof Amy Edmondson, HBS, as the most critical behaviours needed to create psychological safety or to catalyse interpersonal risk taking. Without this innovation and creativity can’t happen. The question remains, to what extent does your organisation’s manager development deliberately upskill across these 3 critical behaviours. 

Let’s remind ourselves of the current statistics for mental health, so we can give this piece some more context and a greater sense of urgency. In the UK, 3 in 5 people have reported a deterioration in their mental health during the pandemic, the World Health Organisation has predicted that depression will be the number one illness in the world by 2030 and the risk to organisations – mental health exposure has moved from 1:10 to 1: 3. A society that talks about productivity but not resilience (in the sense of healthy humans) will become a productive society that isn’t resilient. And I believe this is exactly where we have landed. 


I’ve learnt two important lessons in my life, which I’d like to share with you. The first, building resilience is not about powering through, it’s actually the opposite. It’s investing time in rest and recovery – mind, body, spirit. The second is the importance of developing an agile mindset, being flexible and adjusting our thoughts, emotions and behaviours according to the changing contexts in which we find ourselves.  Why are these lessons so important, right now? 

Transformation is dead; we have entered the realm of the “infinite organisation” meaning, organisations are now in a constant state of reinvention, there is no end point, there is no finish line, as such, employees are facing never-ending cycles of work. Simply put, humans cannot sustain this way of working. Creating shareholder value remains the no. 1. guiding principle for organisational performance. Despite changes to the corporate governance code in the UK and increasing pressure for public companies to become purpose driven, alongside more than a decade of evidence that diversity and culture are both indicators for accelerated performance. The infinite organisation has 3 priorities – increase revenue, deliver exceptional customer experience (CX), lower costs. How are they going to achieve this – a next generation operating model for the digital world. In March 2017, McKinsey invited leaders to… 

“…make an honest objective assessment of talent and capabilities within the organization, benchmarked against peers and cross-sector leaders. Disruption often comes from outside an industry rather than within.” 

Exhibit A – for workers 

Make no mistake, if your role or part of your role can be automated it will be. Redundancy or redeployment is on the cards for 1000’s of human workers at all levels and across the range of professional as well as administrative or back-office jobs. Automation does not have to lead to uncertainty and a future of zero hours contracts. 

Project work combined with high value skills and an agile mindset offer humans a unique opportunity to  take back control of an ambition currently held by 64% of the UK workforce, to set up their own business. Many highly skilled people are already discovering the psychological and physical health benefits of being self-employed. Many of us have joined self-organised co-operatives or collectives,  where working in partnership with other small business owners who share our values and offer complimentary products and services, we can combine and leverage joint networks in order to prosper and grow. A shared services model is the next iteration of this way of working in order to scale a business, plugging into a sales & marketing engine, alongside financial, legal, HR and IT services.  

”Your economic security does not lie in your job; it lies in your own power to produce – to think, to learn, to create, to adapt. That’s true financial independence. It’s not having wealth; it’s having the power to produce wealth.” – Stephen Covey 

Exhibit B – for employers 

Digital talent is scarce and many highly skilled people are choosing to work for themselves.  However, the opportunity for organisations to differentiate themselves based on sustainability principles, both to attract and retain top talent whatever their flavour – project, contract or PAYE, is enormous. The neuro-economist Paul J Zak created a simple yet profound equation in his book Trust Factors. Trust + Purpose = Joy. As a guiding principle for creating sustainable employment this is helpful not least because it begins to understand the human experience at both a neurological and emotional level. Humans are not robots. Trust is the pre-requisite for speed and purposeful work, the basis for engagement.  

The opposite is fear; organisations built around systems of hierarchy and bureaucracy need to shift quickly and deliberately to the new reality. 21st century talent wants to work for organisations/ in teams where they feel safe, accepted and where their achievements are celebrated. Zak discovered that humans who experience Care in organisations showed the biggest up-tick in levels of Oxytocin. Human potential can be unlocked, only when our emotional needs are consistently met. We measure two human factors, that we believe form the basis of sustainable employment.  

Psychological safety + Emotional awareness = a High-Performance team 

The meaning of work in the digital age 

So, what is the meaning of work for humans in the 21st century? With targeted long-term investment in the upskilling and reskilling of talent, we have a unique opportunity to create a more equitable society. I wrote about this in A Manifesto for Lifelong Learning. I believe we have a real opportunity to align our working lives with our passions and purpose. For me that continues to be; entrepreneurship, scaling businesses and helping people to become their most brilliant and authentic selves. The meaning of work for humans is closely tied to identity, living with dignity and fulfilling our potential. Purpose + Trust = Joy. 

To conclude, the goals of the infinite organisation are increasingly at odds with human health and wellbeing. Evidence of this being the acceleration of burnout and mental illness across the workforce, Research by Koa Health, cited “Over two in five (43%) of companies in the UK agree that mental health is not a cultural priority, rising to just over half (51%) of companies with a £100 Million turnover or higher” For leaders who have the foresight and moral courage to see their human workers as assets and not liabilities, there is a once in a generation opportunity to re-imagine work. 

Building healthy human systems means; leaders who connect the dots between human wellbeing and optimal decision making, learning, collaboration and innovation. There are two clear capability investments for 2021 and beyond; the emotionally effective manager and a continued focus on agile mindset development, at every level of the organisation. 

As I set the scene with this article, I stated that human health is wealth. I believe that organisations in the future will compete on resilience, meaning the greatest opportunity now for value creation is investment in a culture that puts human health and wellbeing at its heart and secondly that employee experience facilitates conversation and action around building human resilience. Adaptive intelligence is about flexibility; our ability to become more stress tolerant and productive is really about investing in our mental, emotional and physical fitness, including rest and recovery. Organisations that prioritise human health and resilience will win.  

About the author

Catherine de la Poer is on a mission to change the conversation about organisational value. #humansustainability puts talent investment and employee wellbeing front and centre. Talent-first CEO’s see TALENT as a value creator, as such talent is tied to every item of the strategic agenda. She is founder at halcyon coaching ltd, where the focus is to create more resilient and agile individuals, teams and organisations. Emotional Intelligence forms the centre-piece of her coaching approach.





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