The uncertainty of life has led to a mental health crisis at work

lIn October 2022, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released guidelines for promoting worker mental health at work. Murthy’s team developed the framework in response to the alarming decline in employee well-being. For example, 76% of workers reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2021, an increase of 17% from the previous two years alone. Excessive stress costs us nearly $200 billion in medical payments and more than 100,000 unnecessary deaths each year. At work today we are too unwell, too anxious and too overwhelmed.

At the same time, we hear about the changing nature of work: the rise of automation and the constancy of change. Volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity, accelerating and increasing every day, threaten our well-being and productivity. There is no precedent for either pace or the type of change that we face at work today – what we call the double trials. Yet few, if any, approaches recognize and design this new reality as a major contributor to diminished well-being.

Read more: In some workplaces, it’s now OK not to be OK

Successfully navigating this pace and type of uncertainty (not just surviving, but taking full advantage of it to thrive) requires a unique set of emotional, social, and cognitive skills. Understanding these two dimensions of challenge can prepare us to respond.

The whitewater world of work

About seven years ago, our colleague, futurist and former Chief Scientist at Xerox John Seely Brown, began to describe this phenomenon as the “wild” world of work. “For my parents,” he says, “the typical career path was like a steamship: start the engines and full steam ahead… But today’s graduates need to be more whitewater kayakers, quick to analyze and respond to an ever-changing current, knowing and trust themselves so they don’t panic.

If we want to orient ourselves, we must understand what we are dealing with. First and foremost, how fast are these rapids? How soon should we be prepared to paddle?

By most estimates, the year 2020 still represents the first chapter of our new world of work. Job relocation today, at the get started of this transformation, is happening two to four times faster than at the peak of industrialization in 1900. And that pace is only accelerating. As of 2018, an estimated 71% of total labor tasks were performed by humans and 29% by machines. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025 this will shift to 50% of labor performed by humans and 50% by machines.

What about the individual experience of that change? In other words: “How fast is the change that I will personally experience?”

Industrialization changed generation after generation. The whitewater world of work is bringing change so fast we will feel it inside every generation, several times. Hard skills already expire every few years. The World Economic Forum, which tracks the evolution of market demand for specific skills, estimates that every 10 years we will have to completely reinvent ourselves. We will learn new vocational skills, only to see them fall into disuse or move to machines. We will reinvent ourselves again and again. And our children and our children’s children can expect the same.

Recognizing and taking this reality to heart, the project to build well-being at work is not about going through an era or a change. It’s about being ready for all the changes to come.

The nature of change is also different from what we have known so far

Not only is the rate of change dramatically higher today, the change itself is of a different type than we have known in the past. This complex type of change first came to the fore in military and policy circles in the late 20th century. For example, the acronym VUCA, so commonly used today to describe our business environment, was originally coined by military leaders to describe the unpredictability of the changes brought about by the end of the Cold War. Soldiers had to be prepared for:

  • Volatility: Unexpected, unstable challenges of unknown duration
  • Uncertainty: unpredictable events with the potential for surprise
  • Complexity: an overwhelming number of interrelated variables that affect events
  • Ambiguity: Opacity of causes and effects driving events

Many leadership training institutes offer VUCA-based tools to help leaders succeed in our world of work.

About ten years before VUCA, planners developed the related concept of ‘wicked problems’. Unlike the simpler problems of math or games like chess, angry problems are difficult to solve due to incomplete or conflicting information or changing requirements. Wicked problems, by definition, have multiple causes and lack a single “correct” answer. Terrorism, poverty and global warming are all examples of bad problems.

The technology that delivers our daily dose of VUCA and bad issues extends to all industries and forums. It resides in our homes and in our offices, enabling information sharing and faster work. Today there are about 5 billion people online. That’s 5 billion origin points, 5 billion mutation points. Each of us is in the midst of these billions of ripples every day, deciding what to pay attention to, which to ignore, and what could represent a life-changing shift that we need to get ahead of.

In the face of such fleeting, impracticable changes, we feel fear. Nauseated at best, terrified at worst. Humbled by the complexity we created but can no longer control.

The psychological toll of whitewater

Whitewater is not for the faint of heart.

We are, all of us, losing and regaining balance with new tools, new markets, new intelligence every quarter. We know much more today about the negative impacts of these conditions on our health than we knew in past workplace transformations.

For example, unstable work and lack of job control – common by-products of VUCA – lead to mental disorders, poor health outcomes and hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. Actual unemployment has even worse consequences. When we lose work, our physical and emotional health tank increases significantly: blood pressure, arthritis, and heart attacks increase significantly, as does depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide.

Another big risk is that automation has profound implications for human loneliness. More of us will spend our days with “co-bots” instead of humans. Remote work causes social isolation and loneliness in the US has doubled since the 1980s. Loneliness is associated with a higher rate of depression. It is more harmful to our health than obesity, and about as bad for us in terms of mortality risk as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies were not convinced that the new world of work posed a threat to our health. The pandemic shattered this illusion. The dramatic increase in mental health needs among employees due to COVID-19 created a crisis for those responsible for organizational health. Workers were directed to unprepared, overwhelmed service centers. Some companies tried to support those they laid off; most companies were too busy figuring out how to help the employees who were still on the payroll.

Our employers, like all of us, are at their wit’s end. We didn’t evolve to work in the VUCA of whitewater, and yet here we are. We know that if we don’t take action, many will suffer. We can continue to do exactly what we did with our mental health response to COVID-19: wait for the damage to be done and respond with palliation.

Or we can use our unique advantage, which is: Modern scientific knowledge about how to thrive in uncertainty. What positive behavioral scientists have learned over the past 30 years about the psychological drivers of well-being and how to build them gives us hope today to weather the storm ahead. Without this knowledge, we would remain vulnerable to psychological suffering. With this knowledge, we have the opportunity not only to avoid damage, but also to become stronger.

Custom excerpt from Tomorrowmind: thrive at work with resilience, creativity and connection – now and in an uncertain future by Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin EP Seligman, published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2023 by Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin EP Seligman. All rights reserved.

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The uncertainty of life has led to a mental health crisis at work

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