We’ve moved past the Industrial era, yet we’re still working mechanistically, with an emphasis on productivity. Is today’s workplace ready to meet the growing demand for wellbeing?
By Kimberlyn David
Photo by Venveo on Unsplash
Over the past couple of years, I’ve enjoyed some conversations with Davida Ginter, Co-Founder of Enkindle Global, on work-related topics. A colleague introduced us at a time when I was realizing that there was a word for the malaise and exhaustion I had been recovering from: burnout. My restorative process involved a deep examination of motivations: Why did I often work to the point of exhaustion and illness?
In investigating my attitudes and actions around work, I couldn’t help reflecting on the effects of cultural conditioning. As an American, I was subtly and not-so-subtly raised to believe that working hard is your truest purpose in life. The global economy plays a role too. We’ve moved past the Industrial era, yet we’re still working mechanistically, with an emphasis on productivity. Toxic competition among companies as well as nations sets us up for overworking as we vie for jobs (plus, this rabid competition props up modern-day slavery, dehumanizing some of the world’s most impoverished people).
A few questions kept coming up as I dug to the roots of my experiences: What is hard work, exactly? What qualifies our efforts as “hard,” and is describing our work as such necessary? What are the costs/benefits of all of this “hard” work – on individuals, on communities, on nations of people, on the ecosystems that nurture life?
Davida and I recently picked up our threads of conversation through exchanges on LinkedIn, where we shared our thoughts on wellbeing and the future of work. You can only cover so much ground in the space of a comment box, so I asked her if we could continue our discussion via a Q&A format. Considering that Enkindle’s tagline is “Preventing Burnout, Reigniting Passion,” I wanted to catch up with her perspectives in greater depth.
Some changemakers stumble into their most meaningful work through a personal experience. What inspired you to co-found Enkindle – do you have a personal history with burnout?
I haven’t experienced burnout myself. Yet I’ve had many personal interactions with changemakers and leaders who’ve gone through burnout or found themselves on the edge of it. The inspiration to found Enkindle came from witnessing colleagues’ experiences and holding countless conversations with social leaders, who described an ironic situation in which they work endlessly to heal the world and sustain society but forget to take care of themselves and put self-sustainability last in their list of priorities.
Women have always been at the forefront of change. Is it a coincidence that the entire Enkindle team comprises women?
I used to think so. Over time, when I kept hearing both from my team and from external collaborators that it is not, I reconsidered my assumption. I now believe that it is highly possible that we’re all women, because women often see a natural intersection between leadership and empathy. We don’t consider the “soft skills” of leadership as “extras,” nice-to-have traits. We see them as essential to leading change.
If our workplaces are toxic and/or we lack control over our work and/or we’re struggling to find work that offers dignity and pays a decent salary, we will be affected. There’s only so much we can do to mitigate stresses like these on our own. Yet we hear a lot about burnout as an individual’s problem with managing stress and workloads. When so many people are experiencing high levels of stress and exhaustion, shouldn’t we be analyzing the structural aspects of burnout?
I absolutely think that burnout is not an individualized problem, even though it’s mostly experienced individually. Preventing burnout and managing stress necessitate personal practice, yet at the same time we must change the system’s structure and implement solutions that address root causes – and avoid dissonance between self-development and systems’ stuckness. Systems range from governmental bodies to business organizations and academic institutions to entire communities. As long as we continue defining success according to productivity (not to mention climbing the corporate ladder and working long hours), we’ll remain caged in a mindset that encourages over-busyness and exhaustion as proof of value.
According to a Gallup report, just 13% of the world’s working people feel engaged at work. Another way to look at this number: 87% of us are unhappy because of work. Perhaps the meteoric rise in burnout stems in part from cultural narratives about work as the source of meaning, purpose, status, and achievement. If work makes most of us unhappy, why don’t we reimagine its purpose? Could it be that the system of work, which often reduces us to workers and consumers, is the root cause of burnout?
The vast majority of people I’ve interviewed for research on burnout didn’t complain about having to go to work but about the parts of work that made them unhappy, stressed, or burned out—such as the lack of appreciation or a harmful competitive environment. It seems that the problem is rooted in the current form, not in the essence. Work can provide life with meaning, serve as a source of financial sustainability, and invite social connections. Work itself isn’t the cause of burnout; it’s the work conditions: the rules (e.g. 5 full days a week); the old-fashion assumptions (“more equals better”); the hierarchical organizational structures; the lack of empathy towards employees and a failure to treat them as humans; the lack of consideration for any bold and innovative ideas offered by staff (if they were even encouraged to speak up) – these are the underlying causes for burnout, not the work itself.
Work as we know it gobbles up most of our day, leaving us with very little time to relax and connect with others – the basic necessities of our wellbeing. That’s true for full-time employees who enjoy paid vacations and benefits as well as gig-economy folks who are always scrambling for work. Meanwhile, unemployed people can feel marginalized in a society that links belonging and respect with paid work.
There are businesses and organizations that understand the importance of supporting their employees’ wellbeing, yet so many others just scratch the surface with “wellbeing activities” for their staff. It’s much more complicated or people who are freelance, self-employed, or unemployed because on top of securing and looking for work, they also need to be aware of and manage their own wellbeing. They need to take time off from work every now and then to stay well and keep doing their job. Tricky, isn’t it?
It’s a question of changing the prevalent mindset affecting our habits and routines. Are businesses and organizations ready to take the leap and change their approach to employees’ wellbeing? Are self-employed people willing to stop comparing themselves to others and pause the self-judgment (comparison is the highway to burnout)? Are people who can’t afford much time off open up to trying practices that won’t require a vacation yet have the potential to increase their resilience?
The structure of work as we know it might not allow enhanced wellbeing, but work is just an entity invented by humans. We can adjust and reshape work – and we are responsible for changing what is no longer serving our needs in the best possible way.
We should help people thrive in full-time work situations and assist and guide those who wish to find their own path, on their own terms. We could easily start with the education system. Why don’t we equip youth with entrepreneurial skills and teach them how to seek out help and mentorship?
What’s your vision for the future of work?
Rather than a survival mechanism, work becomes a positive force of social change, constantly meeting collective and individual needs while doing the least amount of harm for the greatest social good. Trust is a cornerstone of all work relations and operations.
Young people are educated and prepared with relevant skills, and those are cross-sectoral: project management, creativity, human-centered design, financing, writing, storytelling, communication, etc. Decision-making processes are participatory as well as engaging, and there’s radical flexibility and attentiveness to employees’ needs. There’s clarity, transparency, and navigable paths to funding sources for social entrepreneurs.
Wellbeing is woven into business missions at all levels: personal wellbeing, team(s) wellbeing, organizational culture of wellbeing, contributing to social wellbeing. Parameters such as social and environmental impact are considered in the scale of income.
Kimberlyn David co-hosts retreats, teaches yoga/mindfulness practices, and develops communications and wellbeing initiatives for ethical brands. Born and raised in the US, Kimberlyn has lived in New York and Los Angeles, and Panama City, Panama. She now hangs her hat in the Netherlands, where she moved in 2017. Learn more about Kimberlyn