Early in 2019 my friend and colleague, Kent Frazier, and I began informal conversations about “mental illness” and “mental health” and how these two characterizations were showing or had shown up in our lives, in the lives of our families, friends and colleagues, and in workplaces we’d known or had heard or read about. While depression and anxiety were primary, they were not the only foci of our attention. As we talked and read and listened we bumped into a few sobering statistics. The following are representative:
- Workplace stress is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $500 billion dollars, and, each year, 550 million work days are lost due to stress on the job.1
- Half of Millennials and 75% of Gen Z’ers have left their jobs for mental health reasons. 2
- Depression is the leading cause of disability on the planet.3
- The annual global economic burden of mental illness is $2.5 trillion, costing businesses an estimated $100 billion.4
- Health problems associated with job-related anxiety account for more deaths each year than Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes.5
Kent and I met in 2011 amid changes we were each seeking – traveling in what seemed to be “opposite” directions in our careers. I had spent some 35 years as a Catholic High School teacher and basketball coach, college administrator and teaching poet, and was looking for a way to ‘make up for’ the money I had not made. Kent had spent some 20 years (we have a decade-plus age difference) in Human Resources in the corporate world, rising up to the Vice Presidential level in two different companies, and was looking for a deeper sense of meaning in his work, despite the money he had made. We arrived at a shared perspective, to which abundant research6 already pointed, that meaningful work and earning income commensurate with the contribution to and impact on others’ growth and wellbeing were important aspects of creating a fully expressed and fulfilling livelihood.
As we worked with the language of mental illness and mental health at work, we began to consider the possibility that depression and anxiety were actually legitimate, understandable responses to “sick” places of work, and we recognized this as an echo of Krishnamurti’s assertion that “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
We began speaking about “Mental Fitness as an Evolutionary Imperative” with some of our friends and colleagues, and our language most recently landed on “Being Fully Human at Work – a 21st-Century Imperative,” which cuts to the heart of the matter. We need to be able to show up fully at work, and we need to do work that honors our full humanness – whatever that might mean for each of us.
Fully Human at Work invites us to look at “the work” that needs to be done at this time in history, in our own lives, and in the ways we support and care for others. What if “our work” became more about connecting with our truest selves and building bridges to connect with and support our common humanity in communities; to uplift this common humanity and the systems that support it, rather than primarily serving the financial interests of shareholders and our own financial gain? What if our meaningful work and commensurate compensation emerged through a “what am I giving” rather than a “what am I getting” mindset? What might such a shift allow or invite?
We believe that each of us has what Frederick Buechner has referred to as a deep gladness, what Bill Plotkin calls soul work, what Howard Thurman called that which makes you come alive, and what Harley Swift Deer calls our sacred dance; and that we are called to manifest this gladness, this aliveness, this soul work or sacred dance as a gift to our people – to the world. Our charge is to recognize our gift and find a way to engage it while we also take care of ourselves and our families through what Plotkin calls survival work7 – and this is rarely an easy undertaking.
We may have to engage our soul work with no thoughts of compensation while we engage our survival work; we may find a way to bring our sacred dance into how we do our survival dance; we may be called to find an employer who will welcome our deep gladness in the workplace; we may begin, a little at a time, to find ways to get paid for doing that which brings us alive; and if we’re among the gifted, fortunate, hard-working few, we may find a way to merge our soul work with our survival work.
We invite you to explore these possibilities with us. What is your deep gladness? What brings you alive? How will you bring it to your people?
Please consider joining us for our 12-hour, 6-session online course, Fully Human at Work: A 21st-Century Imperative. Tuesdays, January 14 – March 31, 2020. Register here. More details and registration information at https://www.fullyhumanatwork.com/. Registration is limited to 18 participants.
1Harvard Business Review online, December 2019
2CNBC online, October 2019
3World Health Organization online, December 2019
4OneMind.org, accessed December 2019
5The Atlantic online, February 2015
7Survival work (or survival dance) is not a pejorative term. From Plotkin: “Our survival dance, a foundational component of self-reliance, is what we do for a living – our way of supporting ourselves physically and economically…. Everybody has a survival dance. Finding or creating one is our first task when we leave our parents’ or guardians’ home.”
Howard Thurman. [I have been unable to find an accurate citation for the origin of this quote]: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Thurman
Bill Plotkin. Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. [Harley Swift Deer is quoted in Plotkin].https://animas.org/