As our world is roiled by one crisis after the other, and as the little virus that could keeps many, many people more or less confined to their homes, mental health issues are fast rising up as a core problem for contemporary organizations. The scary thing is, it already was. Stress has been endemic for long already, and an evermore globalized capitalism has created a very real sense of precarity among employees, with jobs being here today and quite possibly gone tomorrow. Now, as many countries are seeing record-breaking unemployment and those who work are either confined to Zoom-jails or fearing for their lives in an environment where catching a potentially deadly disease is something you just need to accept as fact, this is all coming to the fore.
Unemployment might not seem like it would directly hit organizations and those still at work in them, but we should be acutely aware that every person fired or furloughed could well be a family member of someone in our organization. Further, as the threat of a recession moves into the very real experience of a recession, it is natural that many in the organization are wondering whether they’re next. Add in pre-existing stress and the often alienating sensation of working at a distance, and we have created something akin to a perfect breeding ground for mental health issues.
You might now wonder why I would insist this is specifically an innovation issue. Well, it is obviously something more as well, a huge challenge for the contemporary corporation. By stating that it is an innovation issue I am not saying that it wouldn’t be an HR issue, or a leadership issue, or a diversity issue. It is all of those things, and more besides. What I want to emphasize, from my little corner of observing the issue, is that we need to be aware it is an innovation issue as well.
I further think that we may often think of innovation as the “fun” side of organizational life, a happy place that isn’t touched by issues such as stress and mental fatigue. We often portray innovation work as cheer- and colorful workshops, all smiles as the glum rest of the world goes on somewhere else. This is of course fiction, as innovation work takes place in the organization, and is beset by the same traumas. I’ve long spoken about how stress can create a toxic environment for innovation (see below, for instance), but I believe that we may now start seeing something even more troubling.
It isn’t easy to be creative/innovative under pressure, and particularly not if the pressure is one where one is simultaneously expected to work with ever tighter resources yet tasked with charting a way forward in the midst of a doubly distressing recession. I’m already picking up on a lot of new stress from people working in innovation, trying to do forward-looking work whilst isolated at home. I’m already seeing how the gloom of the situation is making people less keen to push ideas or even suggest things. Best keep your head down, and try to ignore the gnawing anxiety within…
Leaders need to understand that innovation is created in the here and now, but not in the way most people think. It is created by making sure that we have healthy cultures, ones where people feel safe and cared for. It is created by having a mental environment in which people feel they can make their voices heard and bring ideas to the fore. It is created by both sowing the seeds for the new and making sure the soil for these is healthy. Right now, this is at a premium. In a crisis it might seem that having a healthy organizational culture, one of care and civility, is a luxury not everyone can afford. Addressing something as “soft and fluffy” as how people feel in the (virtual) workplace might seem like something you do once the fires have been put out. These are understandable perspectives, but oh so dangerous. Right now, the seeds that are sown in many organizations are not those of innovations to come, but those of burnout and paranoia. If we don’t start tending to this, we may well find that our innovation pipeline has become a off ramp to work health services instead.