Agile 2018

Agile 2018
Speaking at Agile 2018

Monday, July 17, 2017

Work should not make you crazy

Being an office worker feels this wrong and it
needs to change or the global economy is in trouble.
I have been a business professional for over twenty years.  I have witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly of what it means to be a professional.  I am well compensated for my work, but like many people today I live paycheck to paycheck.  I have endured three recessions in my lifetime each time suffering a personal of a financial setback.  I am pretty stoic about these experiences, but they continue having a lingering effect on the kind of leadership I practice.  This week I want to talk about an issue which is an unspoken problem in the business community – mental health.

I began thinking about this topic when news came out on Mashable about Madalyn Parker.  She sent an e-mail where she told her staff that she was taking two days off for mental health reasons.  Her letter was then followed up by a letter from the CEO thanking her for taking the time to focus on her health and wished her a swift recovery.  What followed was a flurry of articles and think pieces about mental illness in the work place.  I want to add my two cents to the conversation.

The world of the white collar professional is unforgiving, highly competitive, impersonal and unfair.  The global economy does not care about the individuals who keep it going.  The factory worker manufacturing smart phones in China, the developer working late nights building applications and the young person cultivating social media likes are all part of this ecosystem.  This environment is an ideal breeding ground for mental illness.  With 1 in 5 Americans who have a mental illness, and I consider addiction part of this statistic, there needs to be a discussion about mental health in the work place.

The reason I became an agile practitioner is as a software developer I labored in plenty of situations which were dysfunctional.  I swore there must be a better way if given a chance I would help lead the necessary changes.  My career is guided by that mission.  In that respect, I am similar to the muckrakers and union organizers of the late 19th century.  These people lobbied and organized to end child labor, reduce injuries in the workplace, and enforced fire safety in all factories.  Eventually, the government became involved, and O.S.H.A. was created to ensure the abuses of the past never happen again.

Just like we do not want to work in factories where the likelihood of amputation or death is high we should also demand offices which discourage mental illness.  Here are some of the long term trends I see which are promoting mental illness.

The use of alcohol and recreational drugs as a social lubricant in business. – 

As long as there has been an America, there has been alcohol.  The nation’s drinking problem became so bad that elected officials, wrongly, passed a constitutional amendment to ban the sale of alcohol entirely. When prohibition proved to be a failure, American returned to its drinking ways.  The real spike in alcohol abuse in this nation took place in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and the television show “Mad Men” chronical these boozy times.

Fifty years later, alcohol is the drug of choice in the media profession.  Client in all industries is being “entertained” with fine wine and cocktails.  Account executives and vendors are exchanging and consuming alcohol, and it is a regular business practice.   Professionals see this as early as college and discover the consumption of alcohol is a way to deal with stress.  Some of these professionals develop addictions problems, and these addiction problems spill over into the business.

Also, the use of cannabis among engineers has increased over the last fifty years as well as abuse of cocaine among executive ranks.  The reliance of both legal and illegal means to alter consciousness exacerbates existing mental health issues and hurts productivity.  The office should not be a gateway to addiction.

Sleep deprivation. –

Tight deadlines, outsourcing and the around the clock nature of the economy means that a professional to conduct their job has an irregular sleep schedule.  I have written about the importance of sleep in the past, and so has my friend Lawrence Gasik.  Research has shown that people who do not get enough sleep exhibit the traits of PTSD or alcohol intoxication.  There are international conference calls to take and offshore teams to consult.  Business leaders still expect meetings in the office take place during daylight hours, so those people working on these bifurcated sleep schedules suffer in silence.  It explains why sleep aids, melatonin, coffee and Five Hour Energy drinks sell so well in the United States.  We are attempting to whipsaw our bodies into sleep and wakefulness to accommodate the demands of the global economy. This type of sleep deprivation also undermines the mental health of employees.

The focus on shareholder values instead of customer value in large companies. –

Richard Eastman of the Kodak Company paid his employees above average rates, provided numerous perks for his employees and provided outstanding service.  He resisted unionization of his office and factory workers but always made sure his pay and benefit packages were always better than the current market.  With rising unionization of the work force, capital balanced the needs of customers, labor, and shareholders.

This trend began to change as future CEO Jack Welch gave a speech about “Shareholder Value,” to The Pierre in New York.  Combined with the Chicago school of Economics, led by Nobel laureate Milton Freedman business leaders began to worry more about share price than other aspects of the firm.  The effects have been remarkable.  Stock prices have increased for many companies, a particular segment of the investment class has gotten obscenely wealthy, and many mergers and acquisitions have happened to create massive economies of scale.  Shareholder value also lead to the Financial Crisis of 2008 popularized in “The Big Short,” the rise and fall of Enron, the skullduggery of RJR Nabisco and finally the destruction numerous corporate towns in middle America and popularized by the book “Glass House.”

There is plenty of pushback in the academic community against the shareholder value movement, but the business sector has not embraced it and still do not see employees as partners in success.

The inability for business to pay people their real labor value. –

Since the Presidency of George W. Bush and the bursting of the bubble, companies have gotten very good at creating what my friend Bob Karzeniowski calls the musical chairs economy.  Using slow growth as an excuses firms are demanding more experience from applicants and cutting back training opportunities.  People cannot get on the career ladder, and those that do often have limited chances for advancement.  I also should point out that recruiters and hiring managers openly discriminate against the unemployed people and those who are laid off.

The Great Recession of 2008 – 2009, created a glut of workers.  It has taken nine years, but now that the job market has tightened, business people have lost the “muscle memory,” to increase labor participation to meet the market demand.  We now have created perverse incentives such as airlines having to cancel flights because there are not enough pilots.  Low wages, the musical chairs job market, and the mental scars of the great recession create insecurity.  This instability leads to the undermining of self-esteem and mental illness issues.

The promotions of people with psychopathic tendencies into executive leadership roles.  –

Over the last 40 years, we have been promoting the wrong people into business leadership roles.  Many of these people support the short sided notion of increasing shareholder value.  Making matters worse is some of them are psychopathic who find emotional fulfillment by playing people off each other.  Instead of nurturing others and guiding the business, these leaders create a toxic stew of dysfunction.

It is even more pernicious because these leaders become celebrities in the corporate world and media.  Finally, psychopaths are emotional chameleons kissing up and kicking down to advance their careers.  These emotional vampires undermine morale, and the mind games threaten mental health.

Finally, social stigma against people with mental illness means people who should get help do not. –

Numerous studies have shown the stigma of mental illness is the principle reason people do not get treatment.  This stigma is amplified in the business world where mental toughness and grit are highly prized; to admit weakness is to accept failure.  Venture capitalists are reluctant to give money to people who might be risky.  Someone with bipolar disorder or narcissistic rage is risky to lead a project.  The stigma of mental illness is equal to risk, so business people shun it.

I find it ironic business people does not treat individuals with diabetes or high blood pressure in a similar fashion.  Mental illness if managed correctly, resembles those chronic diseases.  So the stigma of mental illness and its effects on a career prevent people from getting help when they need it.

Taken together, I think these six factors in the modern workplace make it fertile soil to nature mental illness.  Most business people pay lip service to their employee’s mental health because they are trying to keep the business running, meet payroll, and keep investors happy.  It is an ugly spiral; if we want productivity and GDP numbers to improve the business community will have to make some significant reforms.

Just as a factory with fewer fatal accidents is more productive one with deadly accidents; then the contemporary office with fewer mental health problems is more competitive than an office filled with dysfunctional people.  What we currently have is not sustainable, it is better to reform now than wait and see what happens next.

Until next time.