The topic of emotional vitality has become increasingly popular in HR circles – and the general consensus is that work often damages an individual’s emotional vitality. The downside of the hyper connectivity we all enjoy in our personal and working lives is that the combination of globalisation and technological developments can leave always-on workers exhausted and drained. Employee engagement surveys show that people are exhausted, their well-being is deteriorating, and their emotional vitality is being eroded.
As a result, the very energy and enthusiasm that are the keys to individual vitality and corporate resilience are ebbing away. It may seem that encouraging ourselves and others to work flat out, to answer that message and keep our phone by our bedside, is a sure-fire way to increase productivity. But this is a fallacy. In reality, when we lose the natural rhythm of our lives and work flat out, what disappears is our emotional resilience and those times of reflection, contemplation, and playfulness that can be the wellspring of insight and innovation.
So what can be done?
How corporations enhance emotional vitality
The simple truth about the future of work is this: there are no checks and balances on the horizon that will reduce these working pressures. The answer lies in the way that employees and executives think about work and about how work is done. It’s fundamentally about working practices and the design and management of culture and norms. Let’s look at three important ways in which this can be done.
1. Improving the work-home cycle
As the research I did with Hans-Joachim Wolfram shows, the work-home cycle also has a huge role to play when it comes to managing and combating stress. This cycle can be either caustic and draining, or positive. To get the balance of the work-home cycle right, organisations need to stop thinking about work and home as two unconnected spheres, because they are inextricably linked. Companies must think about how they support families and about whether employees have enough scope to ensure a cycle of positive spillover between home and work relationships.
2. Encouraging playfulness
It is not simply “not working” that can be a source of emotional vitality—the work itself can also be energising. Specifically, when the working day has within it times of unstructured, free-flowing and playful activities, which provide opportunities for vitality to be strengthened and for creativity to flow. While researching my book The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems, I looked at how “free time” at the chemical company DuPont led to the development of the fibre Kevlar, one of DuPont’s most successful and profitable innovations. The textiles company W.L. Gore is another great example of how unstructured, playful work affects the vitality of workers and the resilience of a company – a playful exercise by one of the company’s engineers led to the reinvention of acoustic guitar strings and a 35 percent share of a market where Gore traditionally had no presence. Providing people with space to explore and experiment with new ideas, behaviours, or identities can play a crucial role in creating emotional vitality and building inner resilience.
3. Designing natural rhythm
Playfulness across a week or a month can be a real bonus to emotional vitality, but what happens in the long term? There are times when we want to come “off ramp” and change the speed and trajectory of our career for a period of time to accommodate and prioritise other activities in our lives such as developing new skills.
Many organisations are struggling with this because they have for too long associated the idea of career customisation with motherhood. However, as life stage becomes an increasingly important factor in people’s career choices, a far wider spectrum of employees requires access to customisation. One reason for this is that people can reach the same life stage at vastly different ages. For example, some employees will choose to become parents in their 20s, while others do the same in their 40s. As people start to live longer, we will see more and more people rejecting traditional linear career paths and opting for careers that move sideways, downwards, or even pause for a while. Handling this effectively means making career customisation fluid, mainstream and transparent – as Deloitte has done with its lattice-shaped careers.
There is evidence that the current stress at work will only increase unless those who lead corporations can learn to support the work-home cycle, think about encouraging playfulness, and create a more natural rhythm of work. All this is possible, and as we have seen, there are some emerging good practices in play to act as a role model for others.