Depression and the Loss of Connection To Meaningful Work

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, was concerned about the extraordinary rise in the use of antidepressant drugs in America and the associated total focus on biological causes of depression.  He set about doing worldwide research on the social factors contributing to depression.  He was particularly interested in precursor events or situations that led to a person experiencing depression.  His research led him to identify nine social factors that were contributing to the alarming rise in the incidence of depression and suicide.  As the title of his book indicates, each of these social factors related to a “lost connection.”  He describes the first of these causal factors as “disconnection from meaningful work”.

Loss of connection to meaningful work

Johann’s research (and that of his colleagues) covered a range of people engaged in different kinds of work, usually at lower levels in organisations.  They found that certain job characteristics contributed to a loss of meaning for the worker.  This disconnection with meaningful work resonates with the Job Characteristics Model developed by Hackman and Oldham in the 1970s as a basis for the design of jobs that generated positive psychological states such as the experience of meaningfulness and personal responsibility.

Johann, drawing on his own research and that of his colleagues, identified several job characteristics in different contexts that contributed to the loss of connection to meaningful work and resulted in people experiencing depression:

  • Lack of control over work – research into the high incidence of suicide amongst staff investigating tax returns in the Taxation Office in Britain found that a key contributing factor was the lack of control over their work.  No matter how hard they worked, the pile of work kept growing and they could never get on top of it.  The ability to control the work environment and how work is done, known as “agency”, has been the subject of much research into what constitutes a psychologically healthy work environment.
  • Lack of feedback – in the previous research, another factor identified as contributing to psychological illness was the lack of feedback about performance of the job.  No matter how well or how poorly the work was done, there was no feedback received from supervisors or managers.  This led to a sense of the work and the worker being devalued.  The disconnection between effort and “reward” in terms of positive feedback contributed to people feeling “irrelevant” – they felt that they were not important or relevant to what the organisation valued.
  • Lack of discretion – research into the experience of depression amongst typists in a typing pool demonstrated that a causal factor of depression was the lack of the ability to make decisions affecting the work and the typists’ output.  The typists were totally disempowered because work was given to them with instructions on how it was to be done by people they did not know; they lacked understanding of what the documents involved or meant; demand was endless; and they were unable to speak to each other.  The work was thus experienced as meaningless and “soul-destroying”.  This research, along with other studies, highlighted the fact that people lower in organisations experience greater stress than those at higher levels who have a lot of responsibility because the latter have more discretion over what they do and how they do it.
  • Lack of ability to make a difference – the example given by Johann related to a worker in a paint shop who spent all day adding tint to base paint and using a machine to mix the contents to provide paint with the colour requested by a customer.  The repetitious nature of this task and the associated boredom contributed to the worker experiencing a lack of meaning because he did not make a real difference in people’s lives.  Hackman and Oldham had previously identified “significance” of a job as a key element for a psychologically satisfying job.  Associated with that was the degree to which a job provided what they termed “task variety” and “skill variety”.  Work without variation and with no perceived impact, can be experienced as mind-numbing and deadening and lead to depression.

The loss of connection to meaningful work can be addressed at two levels.  Organisations can develop greater awareness about what constitutes unhealthy work design and remedy deficiencies in the design of jobs.  Action learning interventions can be helpful in this regard and, in the process, build employee’s self-awareness and sense of agency.

Workers, too, can develop inner awareness about what in their work is impacting their mental health and causing depression. They can explore this awareness through meditation and reflection and identify ways to remedy the situation.  As they grow in mindfulness, they may be able to identify why they are procrastinating and not removing themselves from a harmful work situation.  Johann found, for example, that the worker in the paint shop really wanted to change jobs and had already identified what job would give more meaning and joy for him.  However, he was held back by his perceived need to achieve the external rewards of life – better income and a good car.  Through meditation and reflection, it is possible to become more acutely aware of the cost of “staying’ versus changing and to be able to cope with the vulnerability involved in changing jobs.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindful Leadership: Being Present

One of the core skills of leadership is the ability to be fully present when interacting with others – whether with managers, non-managerial employees or other stakeholders.  Being present underpins the capacity to influence.  It is the precondition for effective listening, providing feedback and generating the engagement of employees.

Effective listening

To actively listen, you have to be really present to the person you are attempting to engage with.  It means being able to focus on the person speaking and tuning in to their words, nonverbal behaviour and the emotions underlying their communication.  It also requires the ability to reflect back to the other person not only what they are saying but also the emotions behind the words and the intensity of those emotions.  This enables the speaker to feel truly heard.  Being present in such interactions means effectively that you are open to the influence of the speaker – not shut off from their desire to engender some change in what is happening.

To tune into another person requires you to tune out of your own thoughts and to control your own preconceptions and assumptions.  Reflection following an interaction can help you to identify what got in the road of effective listening.

Providing feedback

Being present is an essential requirement for providing effective feedback – whether positive feedback or corrective feedback.  To be able to give positive feedback that is specific, genuine and timely, you need to be able to observe behaviour that should be acknowledged and rewarded with praise.  You need to be present to notice the desired behaviour in the first place.

Providing corrective feedback for inappropriate behaviour or inadequate performance also requires you to be fully present and to manage your own feelings in the situation.  Once you have spelt out the core behavioural or performance issue, you need to be able to actively listen to understand what is going on for the other person – what is impacting their behaviour/performance.  You may even find, in the process, that you have contributed to the problem through lack of clarity of instructions/expectations or inadequate training.   Openness to these possibilities requires being present and attentive to the person you are providing corrective feedback to.

Engagement of employees

Employees, whether managers or non-managerial employees, respect a leader who can actively listen and provided accurate feedback, whether positive or corrective.  They understand and appreciate that by your being present and attentive, you are demonstrating respect for them, their skills and their contributions – the foundation for true employee engagement.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to be fully present to provide effective listening and feedback to engender commitment and contribution of our followers, whether managers or non-managerial employees.  Being present is the outcome of continuous meditation practice and reflection undertaken on a regular basis.

 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace

If you revisit the previous post and listen to Goldie Hawn’s statement about the tools and skills that children are given in MindUP™ , you come to realise that she is creating the foundations for mentally healthy workplaces . As Goldie pointed out, she set about creating a new culture, conducive to world peace, by developing children as future leaders with dignity and humanity.

In their guide, Mental Health at Work, produced by Portner Press, the authors discuss the need to create a workplace culture that is conducive to developing and maintaining mental health in the workplace. What they identify as the elements that go into making a mentally healthy workplace culture align very well with Goldie’s focus and goals.

They also align very closely with the manager development work I have been doing over more than a decade with my colleague, Julie Cork.  The Confident People Management Program that we have been facilitating for over 2,000 managers is a longitudinal, action learning program of four to six months focused on people management skills.

To create a culture that is conducive to mental health in the workplace, requires, fundamentally, an awareness of, and willingness to address, the basic needs of staff.  Staff have three basic needs, (1) tell me what is expected of me, (2) give me honest feedback about how I am doing, and (3) provide me with the resources to meet the expectations of the job.

Job expectations

Clarity around job expectations is particularly critical for creating a workplace environment that is conducive to mental health. Much stress, conflict and mental illness is caused by unclear job expectations which are manifested in role confusion, role ambiguity and/or role overlap.

Communication of expectations should cover both performance expectations and behavioural expectations. Performance expectations, in terms of the quantity and quality of work to be done, have to be reasonable and not excessive. It is okay to establish high expectations as long as you enable negotiation of those expectations and provide the requisite level of support to achieve the desired outcomes.

The other aspect of job expectations is behavioural standards. It is one thing to communicate workplace values, e.g. professionalism, it is another thing to explain these values in behavioural terms so that staff understand what is required of them behaviourally. So for a value like professionalism, a manager would need to ask, “What does professionalism look like behaviourally in our workplace context?” (or, alternatively, “what would be considered unprofessional behaviour in our context?”).

Clarity around job expectations, both performance and behavioural, is a critical first step for a mentally healthy workplace.

Feedback

An essential component for a workplace culture that is conducive to mental health is regular feedback about performance and behaviour. This involves both positive and corrective feedback.

Positive feedback builds a person’s self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy. It respects and values their contribution and encourages positivity in the workplace.

Corrective feedback is designed to correct performance/ behaviour so that the staff member can meet the job expectations. If it is provided in a professional manner it can be generate respect – the focus being on the performance/ behaviour, not the person or their personality.

In both forms of feedback, it is important that the feedback is timely, specific, accurate and sincere.

Resources

It is unreasonable and damaging to mental health to provide staff with resources that are inadequate to enable them to meet job expectations – this includes the provision of training in both performance and behavioural requirements. In terms of assisting people who have mental health issues, it is important to provide access to independent, external health professionals to give adequate support for the individual involved. What is often overlooked is the need to train managers in how to deal with mental health issues in the workplace – resulting in managers experiencing undue stress and, potentially, burnout.

Listening for understanding

If a manager is to genuinely meet the needs of staff, they have to have skills in active listening. One component of this is empathetic listening skills – the ability to understand the emotions involved for the other person, to empathise with them and to work with them to help alleviate the associated pain where possible.

Being present

Underpinning the above elements of a healthy workplace culture is the capacity of a manager to be really present to their staff.  Listening for understanding, communicating expectations and providing feedback (both positive and corrective), require the manager to be in-the-moment and really present to their staff.

As managers grow in mindfulness, they are better able to create workplace environments conducive to mental health. Kindness and gratitude form part of the emergent skill-set and these, in turn, contribute mental health and happiness, not only for staff but also for the manager.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source:  Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay