The Healthy Work Project: A Healthy Society Needs Healthy Work

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The following article summarises the Healthy Work Project. It has been co-authored by Robert Phillips, Founder of Jericho Chambers; award-winning author and CEO, Margaret Heffernan; and Veronica Hope Hailey, Professor Emeritus of Management Studies, University of Bath.

Determined to avoid a bleak future, it includes an invitation to business leaders and organisations to join an open and collaborative initiative that places healthy work front-and-centre of a good work and better leadership future.


Stepping Into The Uncertain

Peter Drucker famously wrote: “a healthy business cannot exist in a sick society”. Yet this is where we currently find ourselves – a society that’s now sick physically as well as metaphorically, with the state of business equally unwell. Ill-health is hard-wired into current systems thinking.

Commentators fashionably argue that COVID-19 changes everything – certainly in the near-term – but malaise in the workplace has been generations in gestation. Most missed the late-20th/ early 21st century shift from “complicated” to “complex” environments, distracted by cliched talk of a Fourth Industrial Revolution and the emergence of a “new normal”.

Remote working is not new. We could have opted to work from home in greater numbers at any time in the past decade – but chose to resist the impulse, possibly because management orthodoxy encouraged presenteeism as a form of control. Either way, “normality” is lost forever – replaced by a permanent uncertainty and unpredictability … on whom a galaxy of consultants try, paradoxically, to impose certainty, predictions and prescriptions. In an age of crises (mental health, inequality, employment, and climate) pursuing the normal is to duck the challenge; we need instead to develop way of doing and being up that are up to the emergencies we have created.

We cannot allow ourselves to slide back to where we were before, worrying about the wrong things: office real estate; work schedules; optimising “human resources” (aka treating humans like bad robots). “People Management” has spent the past few decades concentrating on weeding out the slackers (a 5% problem) but not on supporting the 95% to be more imaginative, more creative, and prouder of the organisations they are deeply committed to. Celebrating the 95% is the change we need to see.

The on-going state of uncertainty worries those looking for quick & easy remedies and new rules and templates to follow. The irony is that embracing uncertainty can and should be hugely liberating, a gateway to innovation and wellbeing.

From Extractive to Regenerative Leadership

The past fifty years have seen management and bureaucracy supplant leadership. Leadership itself has become increasingly ill-defined and remains obsessively focused on the extractive (draining time, energy, & attention in exchange for poor pay and prospects), rather than regenerative (exchanging fair pay for work which enables both worker and company to flourish sustainably). Leaders have lost face as well as relevance and trust.

Platitudes, cliches and spin are rampant, especially on very real issues of “purpose”, inclusion and sustainability. Integrity has been junked into a meaningless list of corporate values, rather than celebrated as a meaningful behaviour, while humanity – at a fundamental level – has been eroded: not just by a managerial fixation with AI and robotics but also by an absence of respect and empathy, and a lack of appreciation of those with lived experiences of/ in the real world.

In addition, as an uncertain and complex future unfolds, the reflex reaction of many in leadership positions is to close down options and experiments, rather than open up, demonstrate vulnerability and expose themselves and their teams to potential future pathways of experimentation and innovation.

The Future of Work Stalemate

The Inboxes of those who determine policy and/ or influence the influencers, alongside practitioners, are swollen with endless articles and essays on the Future of Work and what it holds. Much is at once predictable, institutional and incremental; feeding the status quo rather than breaking it wide open.

20th century workplace thinking is stuck in a Truman Show-style repetitive cycle and then forced upon us in the third decade of the 21st. An addiction to algorithms and “just in time” planning has become the opium of the managerial masses. Creativity has been stifled and silenced. The Healthy Work Project has been designed as a very direct antithesis and challenger to otherwise sterile Future of Work thinking.

“Algorithms are just models and recipes on steroids—except for their capacity to do more harm faster, at scale. They are no substitute for thinking and feeling.”

Leadership and management has to change: no longer can we slavishly follow broken models. Old power needs to be relinquished. New, collaborative power needs to be given space and voice.

The path to healthier work  can only be made by walking it, together.

FIRED Up: New Organising Principles

Sadly, ill-health is currently endemic (and mostly accepted) in the way we work., with systemic barriers to reform. There is a humanitarian crisis in the workplace – starting with leadership – because people are at the centre of everything that works.

Healthy Work thinking, as it stands, has four initial organising principles:

F – Freedom
I – Imagination
R – Representation
E – Emotion

The FIRE acronym is not used without a slight sense of irony and even mischief.

Freedom is about escaping the tired managerial models of the past and enabling humanity to flourish at all levels of an organisation, irrespective of status or salary.

Imagination is perhaps the workplace’s most powerful and mostly unspoken asset – the need to “think like an artist”.

Representation is about genuine inclusion and voice – way beyond falsely imposed “D&I” metrics: fair representation for all.

And, yes, workplace emotion should be actively encouraged and sustained: we are humans, not robots, after all.

Recent research [Hope Hailey, Jacobs and Green. 2020. Responsible Business in Crisis. London: CIPD] confirms that levels of emotional intelligence and engagement among CEOs have increased as a result of the COVID pandemic. The Healthy Work Project sees this as an important cornerstone.

Too many leaders and too many Future of Work programmes luxuriate in the “la-la land of constantly sunny uplands”. Harsh realism is required. On current trajectories, the future of work – especially for the young and dis-enfranchised – looks bleak, which is why active intervention is needed, especially in the post-COVID near-term. Destitution is more likely than opportunity for many.

The FIRE principles will be developed into actionable ideas, as the programme develops. It will be, as it should, an open and collaborative process.

Making Healthier Work Real

We can no longer afford to talk about workplace health and wellbeing in the abstract. As with the FIRE principles, new approaches to workplace health must be tangible and real.

This means:

  • Addressing mental health not in terms of palliatives (yoga at lunchtime) but daring to ask: whypeople are so stressed, anxious, etc. Our failure to understand productivity as not hours served but as good thinking and decisions.
  • Addressing physical health in terms of having the time and freedom to look after our bodies since, yes ,workers are physical. (It should never have been a miracle that, in lockdowns, people started walking or cycling with their children or that cycle lanes were built).
  • Addressing organisational health in terms of sustainable leadership and creativity. (In some respect we would argue the need for consultants is a recognition of ill health: the failure to generate internally the clarity, perspective-taking and insight needed).
  • Addressing public health: developing the capacity to be seen by society as a net benefit, not a net extractor. How to build companies where people say: thank goodness they’re here? Apart from Pfizer, BioNTech, Astra-Zeneca and the NHS, of how many organisations does the public say this about —and of those, which ones will last?

These are hard problems and the answers to them don’t lie in technology. They lie in thinking, debating, discussing, exploring and experimentation. When we know where we want to go, tech. can certainly help. But it cannot and will not decide in which direction to go. To allow it to do so is an abnegation of leadership itself.

Regenerative Leadership & Healthier Work Coalitions

The determination of the Healthy Work Project, curated by Jericho Chambers, is to deliver fast and immediate impact in terms of new thinking and new data, to catalyse a conversation among business and political leaders that leads to swift and systemic change.

Participants will extend beyond the usual echo chambers and the current forums for HR Directors discussing “people policies”, looking instead to enlightened leaders and organisations excited and energised about charting an uncertain future of work together.

New data analysis and original research plus a series of workshops, expert roundtables, discussion groups, articles, podcasts and films, will help deliver the programme in practice.  Diversity (age, gender, race, ability) will be hard-wired into the project at all levels.

A specific ambition of the project is to encourage and support those determined to escape the imprisonment of compliance and “re-sizing”, looking instead to initiate the radical reset needed if we are to transition from extractive management to regenerative leadership: no longer treating people as disposable (exemplified by the gig economy mindset) but rather nurturing them to be sustainably productive and pro-creative.

The coalition will also link to, learn from and inform other (Jericho) programmes, relevant to the healthier work future. These include the Our Future Voice Now project – giving platform and voice to 16-24 year-olds – and a number of focused initiatives to develop better understanding from/ with every level in the workplace: from Apprentices to the so-called C-Suite.

A Healthier Society Demands Healthier Work

The old adage runs that “the more successful you are, the less human you have to be”. This is as mis-guided as it is dangerous. We argue that we need to shift this claim to “the more successful you are, the greater the responsibility for human beings” and therefore the greater the opportunity to lead rather than follow. This programme will have a moral underpinning, rooted in responsibility.

Peter Drucker is celebrated for writing that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. There is, however, no universal management or leadership culture, nor will there ever be. We all have individual agency and, for those in leadership positions, a responsibility to convene, listen and collaborate; to engage, experiment and be prepared to fail. In this more honest way, authentic, legitimate and regenerative cultures and leadership can and will emerge.

We believe that now is the time to take the first steps together – albeit on an uncertain, if exciting, path into a future that is as yet unknown. Many leaders are, thankfully, already thinking about the issues raised in this article; they now need to be willing to break with the mainstream, advocate more publicly and initiate action. There is no time to waste. It is time to regenerate.

Margaret Heffernan, Veronica Hope Hailey, Robert Phillips
December 2020


To find out more about The Healthy Work Project,
please get in touch.

As part of the Healthy Work Project ‘Unlocking Empathetic & Emotional Leadership‘ captures recent research findings from Veronica Hope Hailey, Professor Emeritus of Management Studies, University of Bath.

Click here to read

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