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Preventing the Future Workplace From (Literally) Killing Us

Left unchecked, the workplace of tomorrow could end up killing more people than smoking


In 1952, Reader’s Digest published “Cancer by the Carton,” an article that outlined the dangers of smoking and would arguably become one of the most influential pieces of consumer health journalism ever written. For many, the link between smoking and lung cancer were new, and the following year, sales of cigarettes dropped for the first time since the depression. Over the next several decades, awareness continued to grow, laws were passed, policy evolved and public opinion of smoking changed.

Today, spurred by a workplace that is increasingly remote and digital, we are on the brink of an equivalent (yet much more concealed) epidemic. On the surface, of course, a more remote and digitally connected workplace is not inherently harmful, and many speak to the benefits that this new way of working has ushered in. But when you dig below the surface and peel back the layers, there will be undeniable and serious challenges, both from a personal health and company culture perspective.

In particular, a workplace that is more remote and digital has the potential to significantly increase our loneliness and stress. Despite the fact that we are more “connected” than ever, loneliness now affects 40% of the population – up from roughly 15% in the 1970’s. We are a social species – from our mirror neurons to language we are built for real, authentic connection. But advancements in technology are increasingly replacing face-to-face communication, and therefore a necessary component of social collaboration. For all the advantages we derive in the workplace from collaboration tools like Google Docs, Slack, Yammer, Chanty, etc, none of them come close to the benefits of authentic, in-person connection. Still, these virtuals channels (along with personal distractions in the form of social media like Facebook and Twitter) operate 24/7, and so we’re forced (or we simply choose) to stay “plugged in” and work longer. The consequences of this are wide ranging – from higher stress levels to an overall decrease in sleep, which alone has shown to lead to serious health problems such as headaches, impaired speech, and even heart disease. All this “connectivity” is even making our dogs depressed.

As the use of these virtual channels has increased, so too has remote work. According to a report on the state of the American workplace, those who worked remotely 80-100% of the time rose from 24% in 2012 to 31% in 2016, and 63% of companies now have remote employees. As these distributed teams become more common and we espouse the benefits, we must also understand the consequences – including increased isolation in the workplace. To be fair, the reason for loneliness is multifactorial, but it’s not a stretch to point to isolation derived from remote (and mainly digital) work as a perpetrator of our increased loneliness, which can lead to significant health issues. In fact, one study has shown that the subjective feeling of loneliness, and the mental health problems it creates, increased early mortality by 26%. Additional research shows that loneliness has the same effect as 15 cigarettes a day in terms of health care outcomes and costs, not to mention the business outcomes of lower job satisfaction and increased likelihood of quitting.

So, what are we do to?

At Ignite, we’ve had the privilege to speak with hundreds of leaders at companies of all sizes about the challenges of the future workplace (our recent white paper outlines more broadly the key investments critical to the future of work). One recurring theme of these conversations is that companies, and leaders, have a pivotal and potentially life-saving role to play: promote, invest, and insist on face-to-face, real world collaboration. 

The benefits of prioritizing face-to-face collaboration and connection can’t be understated. As Ray Dalio points out in his acclaimed book “Principles: Life & Work”“Nuriouscientits, psychologist, and evolutionists agree the human brain comes pre-programmed with the need for, and enjoyment of, social cooperation. Our brains want it, and develop better, when we have it. The meaningful relationships we get from social cooperation make us healthier, happier and more productive…it is one of the defining characteristics of being human.” Put rather bluntly, when we foster a culture where people can make regular, authentic connection with co-workers, their risk of health issues decreases. A work environment that encourages collaboration also has shown to increase productivity, strengthen financial returns, and enhance companies ability to innovate and attract top talent.

The best way to do this, organizational psychologist Adam Grant advises, is for teams to get away from the screen and into the real world. This can happen in a number of different ways – and even small tweaks can make a big difference. Community engagement initiatives, out-of-office learning, after-work group activities, experiences that bring your distributed team together in-person (if only just once a year) and even providing opportunities for employees to connect through designated break and lunch rooms can all play a big role in ensuring we foster a future workplace that nurtures our human need for social cooperation.

Anything less and the future workplace will be more reminiscent of a cloudy, smoke-filled office than of the productive, purposeful, and healthy environment we all want it to be.

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