It has always been natural for us to be concerned with our own individual health.
We experience ourselves as living entities, and our understanding of what good health entails continues to evolve rapidly as we gain a deeper sense of what makes for a healthy human.
Interestingly, there is a long history of taking mental and emotional states into consideration as a part of ‘health’, going back as far as the Ancient Greeks and Romans. And yet, Western medicine and healthcare have largely evolved to focus narrowly on the biological processes underlying illness and disease, being overwhelmingly concerned with the individual physical body and often ignoring many other potential health factors. Practices from other cultures on the other hand, such as those in Asia, have historically sought to understand health in a wider way, relating it to elements such as social Relationships, societal norms and ecological factors. These different traditions – from individualist to collectivistic – bring both opportunities and challenges for how we consider the health of a living system, from the smallest part of it up to the full system.
And yet, this rich, accumulative knowledge of health, evolved over thousands of years and across different traditions, is seemingly abandoned when we consider both people in the workplace and the health of the organization itself.
Whichever approach to human health is adopted, when humans enter the workplace to collaborate with other people and work using technologies and systems, they have historically been reduced to ‘parts’ of a machine, with the collective effect of each of these parts adding up to a complex mechanical unit. And what’s more, the health indicators of that unit have been limited to the simplest outcome. Does the machine function? If so, that means it ‘works’. This is as much ‘organizational health’ as we have typically been concerned with.
But once we start to regard this gathering of many humans, plus the processes and tools with which they work, as living systems with their own dynamic ecology, then health is liberated from the constraints of the machine to evolving as an exhilarating new conception of what a healthy organization – or a healthy organism – looks like.
We have grown used to the term ‘financial health’ and we have refined balance sheets where we can see at a glance whether an organization is financially in robust health or at a point of risk. But what if we had a full range of health indicators across the many other elements that make up its health, such as the Nature of Work elements, and many more?
Finding new indicators of your organization’s health
A tight focus on productivity and output was a key feature of the industrial age, when people were physically making ‘products’ that could be easily counted both in terms of quantity and the time taken to manufacture them.
This is a legacy that has stayed with us, even as the types of work people engage in have expanded from those with more easily measurable outputs. In its research looking into People, Productivity and the Digital Workplace (2018), BT (British Telecom) found that 81% of executives responding to a survey claimed that: ‘Improving employee productivity is our top priority’, with 91% believing that: ‘Productivity is the main benefit of improving digital experiences.
That word ‘productivity’ is one that is increasingly difficult to define as one thing though, particularly for people who aren’t directly working in manufacturing or operating in billable hours. It’s an assessment of how effective someone is in completing a task, often with economic efficiency a prioritized indicator of health.
And yet, despite this, as we moved deeper into the 20th and 21st centuries, there have been attempts to define different approaches to organizational health, based on the understanding that it reflects a myriad of factors that can be taken as key indicators.
Organizational Development theory, for example, born in the 1930s and finessed in the 1950s, was underpinned by humanistic values such as whether an organization was providing opportunities for people to function as human beings, each with a complex set of needs.
Diagnostics have also emerged from organizations such as McKinsey, which has developed an ‘Organizational Health Index’ that identifies nine dimensions of ‘health’, with an associated 39 management practices. As the McKinsey team writes: ‘Organizational health is organic, and, like the human body it evolves over time. If health is to be nurtured and improved quickly, it needs to be monitored and measured regularly.’
Quarterly fiscal reporting therefore won’t help provide such insights into the organization’s health. McKinsey recommends instead seeking tools and methods to check in with people daily, through weekly health huddles, and by running specific health-focused reviews across the indicators that have been selected for your organization.
And yet, time and again, that same measure of fiscal health will be the one that is elevated above others. Fiscal health is, of course, crucial; it pays people’s salaries, and means resources, tools, and so on, can be purchased. But additional factors – Purpose, Relationships, Intelligence and Regeneration – can also be elevated to recognize the key role they play in organizational health, accompanied by new thinking around qualitative and quantitative ways of creating and tracking relevant indicators.
Community health and wellbeing
Approaches developed to assess and manage the health and wellbeing of communities can also be turned to as sources of potential inspiration for developing new ways of thinking about organizational health, based on understanding the organization as a community of people and Relationships.
While interest has increased in individual wellbeing along with wellbeing at the national level as measures of ‘health’, a gap was identified in ‘community wellbeing’ as a way of understanding the areas that impact ‘being well together’. In other words, there are communal factors related to how people within the Structures of a community interact with and impact each other, together with environmental factors, that should be taken into consideration.
A study into community wellbeing conducted in the UK over 5 years found a whole host of indicators, frameworks and measures in use by both government agencies and NGOs, covering a range of community wellbeing indicators across domains such as health and wellbeing, economy, inclusion and Relationships.
The study also found four areas crucial to community wellbeing that are often left out of frameworks: environmental sustainability, inequality, considerations of cultural heritage and intergenerational relations.
Each of these could potentially be mapped to a Nature of Work element: Regeneration; Biodiversity; Roots; and both Life cycles and Relationships. This helps show how a mindset that considers organizations as living systems could help people within those organizations to deepen their understanding of what a healthy living system looks and ‘feels’ like, to support strategy and decision-making around managing that organization’s health. Likewise, it can help build a picture of what one suffering ill health looks like, and what the contributing factors to that might be.
Individual health and wellbeing
Emergent practices, such as mental health awareness and first aid, together with programmes focused on individual wellbeing, have become increasingly common within organizations in recent years. Facilities such as these are aimed at addressing the mental health impact of work as well as creating more inclusive environments, where people will feel safe sharing their mental health and wellbeing challenges.
Other practices, such as more frequent touchpoints with managers to enable them to build trusting relationships with their teams, have also emerged as a way of quickly identifying where someone’s wellbeing is potentially being impacted by work, or by factors outside of work, and how to support that person rather than punish them for any impact these events might be having on their performance.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizational responsibility for people’s physical and mental health came even more to the forefront, both in terms of how physically safe environments were for the people expected to work in them, but also the extent to which leaders, managers and colleagues were able to empathize with the physical and mental wellbeing of others in their organization and wider community. It threw into stark relief the need for working environments and relationships that view and support people in their entirety.
The health of the ecosystem of work
This ‘living system’ approach to organizational health not only helps to take into account
the wellbeing of the individual, and of individuals together, but can also help people to understand how societal factors such as inequity manifest within their organization, and indeed how they themselves might contribute to this. Combined with practices and indicators associated with elements such as Purpose and Threats, a much broader definition of organizational health can be uncovered.
Developing an organization’s own Nature of Work health indicators across the dimensions of the individual, its different communities, the organization as a whole, and then within the context of its role in society, can help build up a richer picture of how healthy the organizational ecosystem actually is.
Without having the right health indicators to monitor, understand and act upon, it can often be too late when it is picked up that an organization has reached a state of ill-health.
As we saw in Life cycles, understanding what the decline of an organization looks like, and the impact of this, can help to sharpen attentiveness towards its state of health. We can then aim to introduce ‘preventative’ measures and seek the right interventions before the symptoms become too serious.
This living understanding of organizational health will help people to create work communities that add to their own health as well as that of their colleagues and society, rather than acting in ways that work against it. And, ultimately, this is what the Nature of Work is about: healthy, vibrant organizations that flourish as living systems through which their people and society can in turn thrive together.
Excerpted from Nature of Work – the new story of work for a living age by Paul Miller and Shimrit Janes, Published 1/14/2021, TECL Publishing.