December 01, 2021
Employees need their organizations to acknowledge their humanity.
Employee’s market. Great Resignation. Worker revolution. Whatever you call it, the tension between employees and employers is not new, and it is not something that is happening to companies, but rather because of them. These dynamics have been at play for centuries, and the COVID-19 pandemic created the perfect storm for a great awakening. The people who make up our organizations are waking up and realizing that something is missing — a sense of purpose in their work lives, or feeling valued for who they are and what they bring to the table. This sense of “something missing” has people on the hunt for an organization that will recognize more of their humanity. What’s needed goes far beyond just compassion or empathy for employees having a hard time — a holistic approach toward employee well-being is needed if organizations want to hold onto their most valuable resource: their people.
With the disruption caused by the pandemic, people everywhere have had a moment to reflect on their values. Employees cite work-life balance as one of the top reasons for looking for new opportunities outside their current workplaces. Jackie Jenkins, change strategist and DEI consultant, offers her insight as an organizational psychologist on what this shift in work culture could mean for employers and HR professionals.
The tension between employers and employees is not new to 2021.
But first, to understand where we are, we must reflect on where we’ve come from. So let’s look back. All the way back.
Coming off the heels of the Enlightenment, when rationality and reason reigned, the Industrial Revolution sparked the conception of human capital theory, which aimed to standardize and quantify human labor as a resource. Several founders of what would later become known as organization theory developed their ideas for the most efficient ways to bring a group of people together around a common task.
And so the age-old question began: how can a group of individuals come together to be efficient and productive in accomplishing a company’s goal?
A Brief History of Early Organizational Psychology
1776: Adam Smith published “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” which explained how the division of labor creates economic efficiency.
1818: Karl Marx established his theory that capitalism begins with “the human need to survive and the will to thrive once survival needs are met.” Marx notes the potential for power struggles between capitalists, the ones who own the means of production, and the laborers, the people producing the output of the production process using the means the capitalists provide.
1856: Frederick Winslow Taylor developed scientific management, a theory using work standards, a target rate for performance set higher than the average, as well as uniform work methods and standardization processes to guarantee that workers could achieve their targets. Taylor believed that applying standards and principles based on scientific research and experimentation would allow managers to pay high wages while lowering production costs. Critics warned that scientific management could ruin trust and cooperation between management and workers.
“Psyche” includes more than just the body and mind.
The field of human resources stems directly from Taylor’s scientific management. Workplace psychologists were motivated to understand the laborer’s psyche to maximize productivity. Jackie Jenkins draws a direct line between scientific management and the problems endemic to today’s workplace. She says: “If organizations are to welcome employees to bring their whole selves to the workplace, they must first acknowledge that people are more than just their mind or body. Psyche is not just about mind and behavior, it’s also about soul and essence.”
Robert Owen and Charles Babbage, who developed human capital theory, expressed the thought that the “well-being of employees leads to perfect work; without healthy workers, the organization would not survive.” In Jackie’s words, “the interest in worker psychology is about ‘how do we get laborers to be happy about what they’re doing, and keep them doing it?’” These modes of employee support lack an engagement with employees’ humanity and need for spiritual connection.
The term “human capital” started appearing around the early 1940s. Organizational theorists used it to quantify human energy and productivity, aiming to keep the measure of labor output as objective as possible. But ultimately, trying to standardize human capital as a replicable resource diminishes the wide variance of human output, talents, and capabilities. Over time, we’ve come to see that humans can’t be standardized and treated equally because every individual has a different set of circumstances, backgrounds, skills, energy, and capability. We’ve learned that diversity in our workgroups is essential to innovation, creativity, and engagement. What we’re witnessing now is a backlash to the very foundation of workplace organization theory. The workplace as we know it was built on a failing premise.
Burnout has been on the rise since well before the pandemic started and has spiked since March 2020, with no sign of slowing down. Many organizations have authorized sick days and wellness days and invited people to be open with their needs to combat burnout. But nothing seems to be curbing the level of stress and exhaustion that employees are feeling — something bigger is at play. According to Jackie, we are experiencing spiritual burnout.
Jackie offers that you might be feeling spiritual burnout if “you’ve become disconnected from your integrity, from your Spirit, you feel you’re just an object moving through Space. You’re not connected to a purpose. You’re just moving forward, not conscious and feeling split into many parts.”
The word “spiritual,” with its religious overtones, might seem out of place in most professional contexts. Jackie describes “spiritual burnout” as a universal concept. Beyond what we do, what we say, and who we are from an outside perspective, we as people all have an invisible sense of self, encompassing our values, what drives us, and how we experience the world.
“If we really want to invite people to bring their whole selves to work, then let’s get into these meaningful conversations, start talking about the Self and how energy is being used,” says Jackie.
She continues: “Ninety percent of what we do is unconscious. We are organizing work life around rationality and the conscious, but quantum physics and science shows us that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.” The foundations of how we’ve traditionally organized work are based on the conscious and rational and are wildly outdated. Efficiency and productivity are still essential to meeting business goals, but our traditional ways of organizing and compensating workers pay very little mind to their and our humanity. Equally important to the goals of the organization are the people who make up their org themselves. More focus needs to fall on the qualities that encourage camaraderie, a sense of purpose, connectedness, and psychological richness. This is not an easy shift to make. In Jackie’s words, “There will be a real stretch for HR professionals: are you here to keep the illusion going on behalf of the managers and capitalists? Or are you really here to be an advocate of change and support the people?”
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