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There’s a Mental Health Crisis At Work Because Life Is Changing Too Fast

7 minute read

Kellerman is a physician, the chief product officer, and the chief innovation officer at BetterUp, a coaching platform in San Francisco. Seligman is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and directs the Penn Positive Psychology Center. They are the authors of Tomorrowmind: Thriving at Work with Resilience, Creativity, and Connection—Now and in an Uncertain Future

In Oct. 2022, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released guidelines for promoting employee mental health at work. Murthy’s team developed the framework in response to alarming decreases in employee wellbeing. For instance, 76% of workers in 2021 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, a 17% increase over the previous two years alone. Excessive stress costs us nearly $200 billion in medical payments each year, and more than 100 thousand unnecessary deaths. At work today, we are too unwell, too anxious, and too overwhelmed.

We hear, in parallel, about the changing nature of work—the rise of automation and the constancy of change. Volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity, snowballing faster and larger every day, threaten our wellbeing and productivity. There is no precedent for either the pace or the type of change we face at work today—what we call the twin trials. Yet, few, if any, approaches acknowledge and design around this new reality as a major contributor to diminished wellbeing.

Read More: In Some Workplaces, It’s Now OK Not to Be OK

Successfully navigating this pace and this type of uncertainty (not simply surviving, but also 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 describing this phenomenon as the “whitewater” world of work. “For my parents,” he says, “the typical career trajectory was like a steamship’s—fire up the engines and full speed ahead…But today’s graduates need be more like whitewater kayakers, quickly analyzing and responding to an ever-changing flow, knowing and trusting themselves so they won’t panic.”

If we are to regain our bearings, we must understand what we are up against. First and foremost: Just how fast are these rapids? How quickly do we need to be prepared to paddle?

By most estimates, the year 2020 still represents the first chapter of our new world of work. Job displacement today, at the beginning of this transformation, is moving two to four times as fast as it was at the height 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.

How about the individual experience of that change? Said differently: “Just how fast is the change that I will personally experience?”

Industrialization brought change generation by generation. The whitewater world of work brings change so rapidly we will feel it within each generation, several times over. Hard skills already expire every few years. The World Economic Forum, which tracks the evolution of market demand for specific skills, estimates we will have to wholly reinvent ourselves every 10 years. We will learn new job skills, only to see them fall into disuse, or transfer to machines. We will be reinventing ourselves over and over again. And our children and our children’s children can expect to do the same.

If we acknowledge this reality and take it to heart, the project of building wellbeing at work is not about getting through any one era or any one change. It’s about being ready for all of the changes to come.

The nature of change is different than we’ve known, too

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

  • Volatility: Unexpected, unstable challenges of unknown duration
  • Uncertainty: Unpredictable events with potential for surprise
  • Complexity: An overwhelming number of interconnected variables influencing events
  • Ambiguity: Opacity of cause and effect driving events
  • Many leadership training outlets offer VUCA-based tools to help leaders succeed in our world of work.

    About a decade ahead of VUCA, planners generated the related concept of “wicked problems.” By contrast to the simpler problems of mathematics or games like chess, wicked problems are difficult to solve because of incomplete or contradictory information or changing requirements. Wicked problems by definition have multiple causes and lack a single “right” answer. Terrorism, poverty, and global warming are all examples of wicked problems.

    The technology furnishing our daily dose of VUCA and wicked problems extends to all industries and forums. It sits 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 points of origin, 5 billion points of mutation. Each of us sits amidst these billions of ripples every day, deciding which to attend to, which to ignore, and which might signal a life-altering shift we must get ahead of.

    In the face of this sort of volatile, impracticable change, we feel fear. Nauseated at best, terrified at worst. Humbled by the complexity we have 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 equilibrium with new tools, new markets, new intelligence quarterly. We know, today, much more about the negative consequences of these conditions for our health than we knew in labor transformations past.

    Employment instability, for example, and lack of job control—common by-products of VUCA— produce psychological disorders, poor health outcomes, and hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. Actual unemployment has worse consequences still. When we lose work, our physical and emotional health tank: Blood pressure, arthritis, and heart attacks increase significantly, as does depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide.

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

    Right up until the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies remained unconvinced that the new world of work was threatening our health. The pandemic shattered this illusion. The dramatic increases in mental health needs among employees as a result of COVID-19 created a crisis for those in charge of organizational health. Employees found themselves referred to unprepared, overwhelmed service centers. Some companies tried to offer support to those they had laid off; most companies were too preoccupied trying to figure out how to help the workers still on payroll.

    Our employers, just like all of us, are at a loss. We did not evolve to work in the VUCA of whitewater, and yet here we are. We know that if we do not take action, many will suffer. We can continue to do exactly what we did with our mental health response to COVID-19—wait until the damage is done, and respond with palliation.

    Alternatively, we can make use of our unique advantage, namely: Modern scientific knowledge of how to flourish in uncertainty. What positive behavioral scientists have learned in the last 30 years about the psychological drivers of wellbeing and how to build them offers us hope today of weathering the coming storm. Without this science, we would remain vulnerable to psychological suffering. With this science, we have the opportunity to not only avoid harm, but also to grow stronger.

    Adapted Excerpt from Tomorrowmind: Thriving at Work with Resilience, Creativity, and Connection—Now and in an Uncertain Future by Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin E.P. Seligman, published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2023 by Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin E.P. Seligman. All rights reserved.

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