The following is an excerpt from his talk:
“So today I’d like to talk about why I wrote this book and why it’s so timely to discuss this issue. There’s been this really interesting phenomenon over the last few weeks, you know when you read a news story and it seems to have hit some momentum and to have taken hold over the last five or six weeks this year. There have been more articles about burnout that I think I’ve seen in the last five or six weeks of this year, than in the proceeding five years.
In fact, two days ago in GQ saying “Is it too early to call 2019 the year of burnout”. I think it’s a reflection really of a time where people are feeling completely exhausted and broken by work and for the first time, they’re willing to discuss it and willing to mention it. Most of us have probably have found the burden of work getting bigger and bigger over the last few years.
I suspect that many of us in the room were around when this happened, it’s about 15 years ago now when the rumour went around the office that John had got a Blackberry, and people went sniffing over to John’s desk asking how John had got this new contraption on his phone with emails, and then they’d go back to the IT department, and repeat the combination of words that John used to get their own Blackberry.
That single device seemed brilliant the time because if you’re anything like me, that meant more time for messing around. If you could deal with emails, while you’re on the train and you could deal with emails while you sat around waiting for someone then maybe you could have more time wandering around the office chatting to people. That to me was the delight of that moment.
However, that single act actually increased the average working day by two hours, from seven and a half hours a day to nine and a half hours a day. Now that wouldn’t necessarily be relevant if it wasn’t combined with another megatrend, Gmail. Gmail has now started to predict the end of our sentences, and to be fair it’s quite often better than what I would have said.
But I think we’re going to be in a similar place in the same way, that nobody five or six years ago would have guessed, that summoning a cab, or summoning food would be as easy as opening an app and choosing things to be delivered to our front door. None of us were really prepared for how the escalating degree of automation is going to start stealing little bits of our jobs.
So how are those two things relevant in combination? Well, because the future of work, whether we accept it now or not, is increasingly going to be creative, some of the things that are routine or repetitive will be taken away from us. That’s good. It’s good as it will leave us to do more thinking. Thinking what if we did this, what if we did that?
There is a reason why the future work of being creative is especially relevant. Half of all people who check emails for two hours a day at the office record the highest recordable levels of stress. Now stress, it appears, based on all the psychology and the neuroscience seems to be one of the biggest things that prevent us from being creative.
So we’ve created this situation where the consequence of the burnout that many of us are starting to recognise, and that we may have started to discuss between ourselves, is that we may be rendered unable to be future proof and ready to the jobs that face us in the future. So, the stress we have brought upon ourselves is killing our capacity to be creative.
And it’s a challenge that’s not just afflicting a millennial audience, it’s afflicting all of us. What we’ve effectively done over the last few years is add more and more layers to work, without necessarily rationalising them. There is a really interesting parallel if you read industrial historians, they talk about what happened when the Industrial Revolution began.
In the first Industrial Revolution the big steam engines evolved into small motorised electric powered motors and what first happened in the intervening 20 years involved the same work but just done with electric motors but then what was quickly realised was, if you adapt the work you can get more out of people.
So the parallel is if you look at the UK productivity stats (and by the way UK productivity stats are the worst in the world) they seem to suggest that what we’ve done is just carried on the old way of working – but do more of it.
The average British person’s working life is so depressing. Did you know that the average working person has 16 hours a week in meetings and the average manager has 23 hours a week of meetings. We’ve created this situation where we’ve over-scheduled our working commitments with the end result that the default operating system for work for a lot of people is guilt.
I suspect you feel this guilt as you go home, you’re guilty that you didn’t get back to that email, you know someone spotted you weren’t paying attention in that meeting, or you left a meeting earlier or (heaven forbid) you declined a meeting.
We’re all in a perpetual state of guilt, and it’s not because we’re not making decisions about how we’re working. We’re finding ourselves more in the situation where we’re trying to take everything on, and we’re not rationalising it.
My entry point to all this is that I reached a point where I was fully burnt out. However I’ve been lucky, I was in a fantastic environment when I first started working for Twitter. People would come into the London office and exclaim what a great culture it was, what a great environment it was and how it seemed to be filled with laughter every day.
I’ve been there seven years now but about two and a half years ago it was a long way from that. We had about 40% staff turnover, the people who stayed looked like extras from the Thriller video, they sort of limped through the door, their arm fell off and they stumbled to their desks, they sort of looked in a state of perpetual exhaustion and totally worn out.
And at that stage I started to get interested in how we work, I wondered what the science is of improving this situation? I wondered what evidence there was to improve this? It turns out there’s a lot of evidence and science. I began a podcast on it called “Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat” and what I found through doing that was that there’s no shortage of science, and there’s no shortage of psychology and there are no shortage of experts who’ve diagnosed the ills of open plan offices. But here’s the thing, none of that evidence reaches the people in work, and I was just blown away by that.
Let’s go through the science of open plan, as a slight tangent. The number one outcome of open plan offices is people end up hating their colleagues. Do you recognise that? You’ll recognise that person who won’t shut up about “Prime Suspect” or the latest Netflix series they’re bing watching. Did you know that when the people around you are talking about a recent TV show the volume of email goes up 75% when you work in open plan offices?
Anyone who suggests to you that open-plan is about creating an agora of ideas, people getting together and sharing their passions – it just isn’t the case. So there’s evidence, not just about open-plan offices, there are loads of other things, that the way that we’re working right now is creating burnout faster and further. It’s almost like we are not making decisions, we’re sort of sleepwalking into a burnout state.
So my feeling was, trying to explore the science, trying to explore the evidence, what was the best route to help get us out of it? I’ve been looking at sport and was actually surprised with some of the evidence on rowers. For example, rowers who’ve been in sync with each other can take twice the amount of pain as the rowers who just rowed on their own. These athletes, just by being connected to the people around them, seem to put them themselves in an elevated state.
Anyone who sings in a choir will have seen this, the really interesting thing about choirs is if you put strangers in a choir and get them to sing together for half an hour, then ask them what they think of each other, whether they trust each other they say “yeah really trust these guys” they have no idea who they are but they get themselves into this elevated state.
So then you start thinking right, this human singing, this magical power, what could be the other ways to activate it? Well one of the most powerful ways, and I think one of the most accessible ways for modern workplaces, is the sound of laughter. The teams that laugh together seem to achieve this, but also conversation and face to face chat achieve it as well. Building sync seems to be strongly enhanced by facilitating conversation.
This was the promise of open plan offices but it’s not, that’s what open offices haven’t delivered. So I think we need to evolve a mixed solution where we’ve got quiet spaces for people to get work done, and it was proposed to me by a co-worker that the solution is a monk mode morning.
A monk mode morning is where you might monastically take an hour and a half, on say a Wednesday and Friday morning and create an almost silent retreat, free from interruptions free from distractions, where you get a big block of work done. Then having been energised by getting your work done you come into to the work environment.
So thinking about how we’re going to be more productive involves thinking about how we can edit those things. One of the biggest challenges is, of course, that voice in your head. The best way was described to me by a guy called Dan Kennedy who runs a publishing firm called Unbound, they do it on demand publishing. He said, I think I’m one of the good guys but inside my head is the voice of the 19th-century mill owner.
And when people aren’t at their desks by 9.30 the mill owner kicks and he’s like “where is everyone!?” and he says, “I hate that guy, you’d hate everything about him he’s not who I am, but at three o’clock you want to see him when I’m looking across at the sea of empty desks the mill owner kicks in”. And that’s the challenge, if we’re going to improve work we need to channel our most progressive instincts and try and find the best way to edit and adapt work.
I mentioned we’re in the middle of a burnout epidemic, I think the reason why it seems to be getting more attention than ever before is that it’s now starting to afflict bosses as well. I recently had a chat with a coach to CEOs and he said for the first time in the last 18 months he has seen so many CEOs that are professing exhaustion and burnout. So for the first time it might start to get some attention, it might it might start to be taken more seriously, which can only be a good thing.
If anyone’s interested in work culture and the evolution of work, quite often the go-to person is Simon Sinek. Simon is a best-selling author, he’s highly regarded around the world and he says the fundamental question about work is, you need to answer the question why. The secret of what he’s talking about is purpose. And once you’ve answered the question why everything else flows from that. People can feel hyper-energized and ready to do their job. The challenge with that is that I just don’t think any of the evidence suggests that that’s the case.
There is, unequivocally, evidence that purpose can really drive us; if you go to a restaurant and you let the chef see the people receiving their food, the quality of the food goes up. When people see the beneficiaries of their work, it’s unequivocal their work goes up. If you get if you get people who are raising donations for scholarship students if you get them to hear directly from one of the scholarship students, the donations double.
So purpose is definitely a driving force but to say that that is the only answer to work seems excessively simplistic. Half of all office workers are burnt out but it’s reached 65% in the NHS and close to 75% of teachers are thinking of quitting their jobs. So purpose on its own doesn’t seem to be the answer.”