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What is the biggest threat to the future of our work and workplace?

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

I’m a very curious person (some might say nosey) and I love to people watch. This means quite often I ‘accidently’ over-hear conversations in cafes and the like. The hot topic that seems to be the on the people’s lips as they chat to their mates, although not necessarily their employers! – the subject of burnout. Overload, overwhelm, exhaustion, “I’m manic” (or some other descriptor of how it feels to be overwhelmed by the demands being placed on them). My other source of insight comes from my coaching work and some workshops I run. One of the things I do is teach mindfulness to business people; mindful working always has a wait list in organisations and I’m often asked to accommodate increasingly larger groups. During the sessions, as people begin to let their guard down, trust is built within the group and they gradually start to ‘come out’ about their sense of overwhelm; “I don’t sleep well”, “I wake up worrying about work in the middle of the night”, “I don’t get time for lunch and am always in catch-up mode”, “I have worked most weekends this year” “I have just returned from stress leave”, “I am on anti-depressants”, “ I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking a five minute break to go for a walk to clear my head for fear of being judged” The list goes on and I feel something big has been happening out there for a while now that we are burying our head in the sand to.

The latest Health and Safety Executive stats (HSE 2016/17) show 526,000 workers in the UK last year suffering from work-related stress, depression and anxiety resulting in 12.5 million workdays being lost annually, costing UK business £29b per year. I think this may be just the tip of the iceberg if we take into account many struggling on but too afraid to speak up for fear of being judged or letting the team down. Forgetting the business cost for a moment– what about the human cost? Is this the type of workplace and society we want to be creating for the future – do we want our employees experience to feel like this? The latest Gallup figures (2017) show that 67% of employees worldwide are not engaged in their work with a fifth of the UK workforce being actively disengaged. So not only do we have the problem of potential burnout but something else is going on at a deeper level causing discontent for many of us.

This makes me feel both sad and very concerned. I know only too well what burnout feels like. Some years ago, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder brought on by work stress. Fortunately, I was able to overcome this and learn from it. Physically this also involved collapsing on the steps at Paddington with pneumonia because I was working too hard – not something I’d recommend! No-one should have to get to that point and feel like that. Ariana Huffington shares a similar experience in her book ‘Thrive’ which led her to find her new mission in life to help people live/work with better wellbeing, wisdom and sense of wonder.

Putting aside the mortgage and a string of monthly direct debits that need funding (as hygiene factors), we know from conversations around the current zeitgeist that we are moving in to an age where people are wanting a sense of purpose and a feeling that what they do matters. In an era of great uncertainty, we also want to spend more time with our loved ones and enjoy life while we are able and not just wed to our career at any cost. We have this deep innate human longing inside of us and yet it’s literally being burnt out of some of us as we are pressured to deliver faster, better, achieve more and risk being professionally shamed if we are not ‘putting in the hours’.

Now of course some organisations are really recognising this and trying their best to fix the problem – I hear about lots of great wellbeing initiatives and shifts towards more flexible and agile working which is of course helping. However, I strongly believe that this is putting the onus back on to employees by giving them some Band-Aids to stick on deep wounds while meanwhile there is a giant elephant in the room squashing everyone. We need to really start addressing the underlying causes. There are limits to what we can pile on our plates before they start cracking. There is a limit to how many emails we have to read after returning from a short break. There is a limit to the number of meetings we can go to that are worthwhile and there is a limit to what we can truly give as human beings in any 24 hours.

Many of us work in the growing service-based economy and have clients to serve, solve problems for and keep happy. And clients (plus we are also someone’s client) have become increasingly demanding. We now in live in the digital age of real-time and on-demand. Nearly everyone I speak to seems to think and act at a million miles an hour and we are in danger of creating a society of ADHD sufferers (if we haven’t already!) But it’s not only the speed facilitated by technology, it’s also the mind-set we have developed post-recession. Many organisations have become obsessed with profit and delivering share-holder value in this increasingly competitive world, where the next threat could come from someone’s garage in China. One organisation I have worked with regularly internally publish celebrations of success in terms of new business wins and profit, whilst at the same time freezing recruitment, expenses and development budgets, so engagement and vibe has unsurprisingly taken a nose dive.

Don’t get me wrong, I have run my own business and worked in large organisations as a Director so I get the importance of making a good profit but we seem to have got to a point where it’s profit at all costs. The human cost and the cost to society and the environment. The good news is, as we are seeing in growing evidence from around the globe, profit, thriving people and sustainability are all possible if we truly look at what culture we are creating, raise our consciousness and go back to some basics.

Those basics are about recognising our humanity. As humans, we are miracles who can create amazing things but we can also wear ourselves out in the process if we don’t recognise that we are not invincible. So much on social media at the moment is about success, achievement and breaking through limits, which is inspiring and motivating but there is much less about really looking after our personal wellbeing while we do this. Of course, some stress is actually a good thing and gets us up in the morning to fire on all cylinders but when we hop over the hump of the stress curve, we start becoming less effective, feel like crap and then wonder why we end up with physical and mental health issues. Yet we carry on thinking we are unbreakable. Crazy hey.

So, let’s pause for a breath and really think for a moment about what it means to be human first of all. Here’s some of the magic common ingredients from research (Pink, HRMA (US), ‘The B team to name a few) but also my own personal lab of 50 years of experience of life on this planet working with all sorts of people and ‘levels’ for a major part of it:

· Positive relationships that we trust where we can have open, honest two-way dialogue

· Community – we want to feel part of an inclusive tribe where we can be ourselves and diversity is celebrated.

· Autonomy – we like to feel we have some control over what we do and how we do it

· Purpose – we want to feel like what we do is of value and has some meaning, contributing to something bigger than us

· Wellbeing – we want to feel that we are cared for and that we can care for ourselves well

· Recognition – we want to feel that we matter and are rewarded (not necessarily financially) for what we contribute to the world

· Fun – life throws us many challenges and it’s important we enjoy ourselves while we do what we do. Who said being professional and high preforming means we have to be serious or miserable?

So why do we sometimes find ourselves parking our human-ness at the door to ‘go to work’? Shouldn’t our work be celebrated as part of who we are and what we do, not a place we go (that we may end up feeling a prisoner to). Isn’t it much better to build more human-centred environments where we help people to thrive in life? They thrive, they engage, perform well and are more likely to stick around to do great work for you if they feel they are being treated well and recognised for what they contribute.

The world of work is so rapidly changing as we know. Many roles will be automated and new roles will emerge over the next 5-10 years. So not only is this the ideal time to stop and think but it’s also necessary to act now if we want to not only to survive but to thrive. We need to really look at what cultures we are creating. Is it a place where it is ok to say, “I am not coping”, to be not afraid to fail, where its ok to talk about our mental health without being seen as being weak or shamed? The Heads Together Campaign is doing great work in getting mental health talked about but we need to up our game in the workplace. While there are some good initiatives within some organisations I talk to (counselling, mentors, training etc.) – this is great but I fervently believe if we don’t get it right at grass roots level and identify the causes of workplace stress and unhappiness we are creating, then we are just creating short term solutions and not addressing long term sustainability.

I am so excited to be going to a conference in early April – ‘workhuman’ in Texas – which is a gathering of a thousand global minds exploring how we create more human centred work environments. The B team (part of Virgin Unite) are also doing some good work in looking at what ‘100% human at work’ looks like. The CIPD have publicly stated their commitment to the cause “we’re determined to champion a more human future of work and my necessity a more human practice of HR” Ernst and Young, Unilever and BBC Worldwide are just some of the organisations recognising the importance of this type of thinking yet it’s still seems like early days out there for many.

I have heard of two work-related suicides and several breakdowns over the last year. Ok these are extreme examples but let this be a warning to us all and not let it ever get to that point. We need to take action now and fast! Start the conversation with your employees, LISTEN to them, at every level, fine out what they need and start to make change before they (or you) can’t cope and leave for a company that does understand or we start doing our own thing. If we have don’t have thriving people, then we won’t, in the long term, have a business so how much profit we make is not even relevant.

I am forming a tribe of like minds to build momentum around this topic to share experience, diverse thinking and initiatives. If you would like to join us, please get in touch with me or if you have some thoughts in response this article please do comment and share it so others can join the discussion.

Remember – we are human beings not robots, in all glory and in all our fragility.

Thanks for reading!


David Liversage

An experienced people and culture professional and fellow human being, working with organisations to help them build more human centred workplaces.


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