By identifying 'overload' as the word of the day, Julia Hobsbawm, an advisor to Guild, brings light to the dark underbelly of how today's workplaces function. We're connected and enabled by technology, we're flexible, we have data at our disposal. We're also distracted, dispersed, and overflowing with data.
We spoke to Julia – author of Fully Connected: Social Health in an Age of Overload, speaker, and consultant – about how to ensure social health in professional communities.
Could you explain how social health differs from mental and physical health?
The World Health Organisation’s original - and still intact - definition of health from 70 years ago marries the concept of ‘social wellbeing’ with physical and mental wellness, but I believe that the concept of social today is very different for one reason: Connected Technology. So, I define modern social wellbeing – especially at work where we spend 10,000 days of our lives – as being about how we do and don’t consume, practice, and behave with technology. In much the same way that we know, for instance, that good mental and physical health hinge on a trio of factors which revolve around Nutrition, Exercise and Sleep, the trio of factors in Social Health are Knowledge, Networks and Time: if all are harnessed well, not in excess or deficit, then I believe that is likely to produce good social health as well as contributing to good mental and physical health too. Because the original definition in so many ways holds true, it just needs more of an update around the concept of “social”.
How is social health impacting the workplace right now?
Stress is a major source of health problems at work and stagnant productivity. 10 million working days a year are lost to stress in the UK; it accounts for 60% of working days lost in the EU, and costs the US economy $300 billion a year. In South Korea, the suicide levels are so high that the working week hours were reduced from a crazy 72 hours to a still high 54.
Since writing your book, have there been any developments in the world adding to your thoughts about social health?
Yes: a generation of the internet has created an ‘always on’ culture. Now we have mobile technology the barriers and boundaries between a home life and a work life do not exist, and need to be created and imposed individually. For all the limitless possibilities that ICT, AI, Machine Learning and computational data have brought, a reality check is that neither the total hours in the week (168) nor the amount of sleep a human needs (approximately 56 of those hours) change. So whilst technology can bring scale, progress, and a host of wonderful benefits, the implementation of that technology at work and on workers is simply too great right now.
In your book you detail your own experience of watching social health decline as technology changed. What’s one thing you’ve seen improve in that time?
We are now, at least, talking about limits, about things like digital detox (or as I call it, Techno Shabbat). This shows a culture change. We also recognise that if you take the human down a notch in the workplace and replace it with a primary faith in machines, it can spell disaster - as the Boeing Max-8 air disasters have shown: new technology was imposed and pilots were not trained to use it and, crucially, override it when software glitches meant it failed. The culture now is becoming aware that there is a link between a blind faith in technology and the need to correct the balance between human and machine. But it's long overdue!
With the rise in flexible and remote working necessitating a reliance on comms tools, how can workplaces avoid overload?
Workplaces need to create individual solutions for their own culture and practice. Personalisation is key. Leadership is also important: if you allow your workforce to work with you and tell you what they need and want in order to be most productive, you are likely to get better results than imposing a top-down system. But I would certainly encourage a culture where there are breaks from email and computers and even go so far as advocating ‘Face to Face Fridays’ which are only for verbal, not written or electronic communication.
Is the onus on leaders in the workplace to ensure social health amongst their employees?
Yes, partly. See above. But the real change comes though culture not rules. Look at health and fitness: it has become widely accepted that what we eat, drink, and how physically fit we are, as well as how rested and psychologically resilient we are, has a direct impact on good workplace outcomes. The next frontier is to develop social heath expertise to combat the effects of being overwhelmed by too little time and too much technology.
Does social health apply to one’s professional life as a whole rather than just how their workplace functions?
Absolutely. We all live lives of ‘The Blended Self’ now, where we carry our careers on our backs through full time work, part time work, flexible work, on social media, in networks, and so social health has to be a holistic and embedded set of behaviours.
What changes do you want to see in the next 5 years to improve social health?
Just like there is a CEO, CIO, CHRO there needs to be a SHO - Social Health Officer, a recognition that measuring, monitoring and raising awareness and changing behaviour around social health will lead to healthier workers - and workplaces.