PSY-HS is a body of work presented as a provocation. Qualitative research and speculative design tools have been applied to create a rich understanding of the context and influences that surround employee wellbeing today, and the socio-technical opportunities that may or may not improve it in the future.
Najung Kim
Peter Williams
Fuzzy Studio
The Soul at Work
Re-imagine our relationship with work and create new ways of working and workplace cultures that support good mental health, to make life inside and outside work healthier, happier and more productive. To get started we conducted research into factors affecting mental health and also cultural and technological trends within the workplace. This led us to early discoveries relating vulnerability and uncertainty being among key causes of stress. We also found there to be a paradox of sorts between the desire to see more women in senior positions, but at the same time it being very difficult to meet the social expectations and personal desire of being a present parent, whilst holding down a high level job.
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Context & Extreme Users
We looked for high pressure industries with reputations for burn-out. Law and Management Consulting were prime candidates. Both have competitive graduate entry schemes and linear “up or out” career paths. The rewards are money, travel, and the opportunity for impactful work. However the level of personal commitment demanded to succeed in these fields is extreme. We interviewed individuals from both sectors. Insights gained include: Employees fear repercussions to their career prospects if they are seen to be overwhelmed by heavy workloads. As a society we expect individuals to fix issues caused by systemic practices. In some cases, productivity and profits are driving the push for better wellbeing, this is triggering superficial responses instead of effective systemic change. We often look to the C-suite for change, but in reality they are under pressure from shareholders to deliver ever greater profits regardless of the demands put on employees.

The ‘how might we’ and creation of a framework

The above insights led us to our ‘how might we’ statement: “HMW create a work culture that is more honest about the harm caused by over-work; where employees feel psychologically secure to work hard without exceeding their limits?” Further analysis enabled us to outline 6 principles that form a framework for building good mental health at work. They are: leaders must set the tone, working within limits leads to better productivity, understand and value diversity, act in terms of individuals as well as systems, good mental health is a shared responsibility, and build security and trust.

Speculation & Preferred Futures

In the same way that clients demanding diverse engagement teams are having a positive impact on diverse recruitment within service sectors, in the future, demands for high standards of wellbeing within engagement teams might inspire employers to take action. Audited wellbeing metrics could become the norm. To this end, employee well-being could become a commodity, one that both benefits productivity and paints a picture of an employer that doesn’t work its staff excessively hard. Additionally, better understanding of optimal stress for performance and productivity, coupled with next-generation fitness trackers, might be used to produce metrics and ‘nudges’ to maximise employee efficiency in real time. A preferred future might be one where instances of chronic stress are rare and demand independent investigations into the actions and circumstances that caused them..

Back Casting & Concerns for the near future
AI is already reading, listening to and watching us in every avenue of our lives, decision making is being taken away from humans and handed over to algorithms. Insurance incentives are driving the use of wearable health trackers. Increasingly we are made to feel that our technology knows us better than we know ourselves. We could be headed to a future in which attempts to achieve corporate objectives and address mental health issues rely on data collection for the monitoring and management of our individual actions and wellbeing. Nudges become instructions and interventions intended to maintain our condition for optimum productivity might become overly prescriptive. We would be advised when and how to eat, work, exercise and recover. Stress from overwork may be reduced, but the loss of free will and high level of surveillance would become a new source of emotional discomfort. Awareness of these potential pitfalls is essential as we strive for a future that is kinder to mental health
Final Provocation
150 Years ago, losing a finger, arm or even your life during the course of your work received little sympathy. Over the last 100 years, health and safety policy has developed to demand high standards of care for the physical wellbeing of employees. More recently, these policies have expanded to include statements regarding psychological care. However, in practice, the rates of work-related chronic stress are increasing. Between 2007 and 2014, 263 instances of suicide were recorded among those employed in the financial institutions of England and Wales. It is not clear exactly how much work-related stress contributed to these outcomes. However, if the level of fatalities among rail maintenance workers was anywhere near this, there would surely be an outcry. Perhaps it is time for a new discipline to emerge, one less concerned with controlling and fixing our psychological state and more concerned with curation of the cultural environments in which we work. Our proposition is Psychological Health and Safety.
special thanks
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