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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Mental health and the future of work

Tomorrow’s worker will be permanently outward facing, obliged constantly to perform. I’m concerned that this doesn’t suit everyone. Even those it does suit might find their resilience challenged.

Many years ago, long before I had done any telly myself, I attended the filming of a TV show. Not a drama, more of a magazine show. Because I knew someone on the production staff, I also went to the party afterwards. It was that sort of show.

The party was in a bar nearby. It was a great place for people watching. There were a few interesting characters in the crowd. But I found myself rather obsessed with the behaviour of the host. Not because they were a celebrity, or because they were doing anything untoward, but because they spent most of the time seeking reassurance and the feedback of others.

The swaggering, confident persona I had just seen perform in front of the cameras was now asking everyone, on the phone and face-to-face, what they thought and whether it had been any good. This wasn’t compliment-seeking, or just a humble entry-point to conversation. They were really concerned about the quality of what they had just delivered. They were unsure. There was a brittleness to the confidence they had earlier displayed.

I thought then that this was unusual. It also got me thinking about my future networking skills. Now I think that there is a correlation between the need to constantly perform with an outward confidence, and a weakening of the more quiet confidence underneath.

The price of performance

This has certainly been my experience. I’m no celebrity, but every few days I’m on stage, speaking at a dinner, lecturing, or on the telly or the radio. I’m constantly exposed and so are my ideas. Half of the things I speak about have sprung from my imagination and I am opening them up for criticism. It is sometimes difficult.

The need to take a break is natural but my desperation to get away from the screen has undoubtedly been amplified by the nature of my work during lockdown. I have written before about the brittleness in my confidence induced by performing. Normally, I might do two or three speaking gigs a week and a similar number of radio appearances.

This has increased to the point where sometimes I feel like I have barely stopped performing. I have been going from livestream to livestream, and when I’ve not had a camera in my face, I have been constantly plugging the book or upcoming events on social media. This has left me more exposed than I might like to some of the current toxicity there, which hasn’t improved with everyone being isolated.

I have always been a very confident person, happy walking into rooms of people I don’t know. I have always enjoyed performing, and there’s no doubt that this job is about performing, as well as research, thought and writing.

But the more I do it, the more I recognise that there is definitely a mental cost to this exposure.

I don’t write this to complain. I wouldn’t change my job for the world. But rather to illustrate a hypothesis. The neurotic actor, crippled by self-doubt off the stage is something of a cliched trope. But I think there is something in it. I believe that roles in which we have to perform constantly challenge our internal equilibrium. And I believe that more of us will be more exposed to this risk in the future because of the changing structure of our organisations, and the changing nature of employment. Tomorrow’s worker lives their life on the edge.

The future of workplace wellbeing

One key change in the structure of organisations is the use of freelancers. Our organisations are increasingly structured as networks of smaller components. This is an approach that I advocate, believing that networks of small components are much more adaptable than deeply integrated monoliths. But networks of small components naturally have many more people exposed at the edges.

The most extreme example of a networked organisation is one composed entirely of freelancers. Each person in that network is not only responsible for fulfilling their own duties as part of the network, they also have to sell their value, report their successes, and communicate constantly – a form of performance – with the parts of the network with which they interact.

Any freelancer will tell you this is draining. But right now a lot of freelance workers self-select for that lifestyle. They probably have, for the most part, personality types like mine that mean they can endure it, or even thrive in it. What happens when more and more people find themselves in a constant state of performance, either as freelancers or at the edge of their component of a networked organisation?

Building resilience in tomorrow’s worker

Resilience has become something of a self-help buzzword in recent years. It’s easy to be dismissive of those offering to teach or coach people for it. But I’m increasingly of the opinion that it will be a core skill for tomorrow’s worker.

That alongside the Three Cs for which I have advocated over the last few years, we should be teaching people how to deal with what happens in a world where those skills – creativity, curation and particularly communication, are prized above all else. How do you cope if you are not a natural presenter, are uncomfortable doing it, and yet are forced to do so? This isn’t just about overcoming stage fright, it can be about going against core aspects of your personality, identity, and even challenge the stability of your own mental health.

Flexible working: one more challenge for the future of workplace wellbeing

In the past, I have worked with global communications company Poly to produce a report on the future of work. You can download the full report here.

In summary, we are not all going to be working remotely now. The office has too many advantages, and remote work is problematic for many. But we are undoubtedly going to be working in a hybrid fashion. This requires incredibly careful thought about how you give people freedom and flexibility while not disadvantaging others and maintaining coherence and collaboration.

While I may have come across as negative about remote working, this is only in response to the massively over-hyped idea that we will all be working remotely for the foreseeable future. As ever, what is needed is a balanced, considered approach to the future of work.

As the size of our organisations shrinks, so more of us are exposed at the edges. We rely more on constant communication to bring in new work, keep partners close and customers happy. We are constantly in promotion mode, pitching our wares.

No-one can live their lives on stage like this. If we are all to work more remotely, more individually, and in smaller, networks of organisations, we need think carefully about the effects on people’s mental health. We need to ensure that they are working safely, and getting away from work as well.

Tom Cheesewright