Emily looked up from her desk. She could barely see more than a few feet in front of her through the gloopy wafts of smoke. The back of her throat felt burnt. The taste was foul. Each breath took more effort than the last. 

As she looked around, she was just able to make out the vague shadows of her team mates. They tapped away on their laptops as the whirling toxic smoke, curled around them.

She made her way towards her manager, “this smoke is killing me, can you do something about it, please?’

“Emily, we are. There is a plan in place. Grab yourself one of those masks from the box. They will help keep the smoke out. And we have some workshops organised where you can learn strategies to deal with the smoke and to adapt your breathing style…”

“But I don’t want to adapt it just because of the smoke! Why can we not get rid of it altogether?!” 

This image punches me straight in the gut. It plays way too close to the reality for so many people sat in organisations, right now. They are absorbing the toxic smoke of their culture deep down into their lungs. The dysfunction, that has been normalised over time, continues to be ignored with a just a paltry peace offering made to help soothe the symptoms; a coaching session, team training, Yoga classes, Fruit Friday, work from home Wednesday and sleep pods.

I seem to gravitate towards organisations that either find themselves with an unacceptable amount of trauma in the system or are battling with the thickening toxic smoke that is suffocating their people and their performance. These organisations appear to seek me out too. Most weeks involve new client calls where I hear stories of stress, anxiety, chronic burnout, high turnover, conflict, declining performance and ever longer hours, all presented via a desperate cry for help. I often see people at their lowest. They are begging to be saved. They want me to offer them my latest version of the gas mask that will support them to continue in this environment, but with the added ability to breathe again. I can help them. I do help them. I can prop them up so that they can go on their own quest to soothe and heal themselves. It’s vital work and, if I can create a container for them to exist where they are able to better support themselves and act with agency, I will. But it’s not enough.

We are faced with a much bigger, deeper and broader issue which we must now wake up to. We are literally killing our people. Oooh, I’m such a drama queen. Always making up things to sound more sensational than they are, huh?! We expect people to adopt healthy ways of living within environments that reinforce and, sadly, are often the source of the poor habits. Jeffery Pfeffer in his 2018 book, “Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance — and What We Can Do About It” recounts the story of Robert Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, standing in front of 1,000 other CEOs and saying, “You are the cause of the health care crisis.”

Pfeffer goes on to say; ‘He takes three points and puts them together. The first point, which is consistent with data reported by the World Economic Forum and other sources, is that an enormous percentage of the health care cost burden in the developed world, and in particular in the U.S., comes from chronic disease — things like diabetes and cardiovascular and circulatory disease. You begin with that premise: A large fraction — some estimates are 75 percent — of the disease burden in the U.S. is from chronic diseases.

Second, there is a tremendous amount of epidemiological literature that suggests that diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome — and many health-relevant individual behaviors such as overeating and underexercising and drug and alcohol abuse — come from stress.

And third, there is a large amount of data that suggests the biggest source of stress is the workplace. So that’s how Chapman can stand up and make the statement that CEOs are the cause of the health care crisis: You are the source of stress, stress causes chronic disease, and chronic disease is the biggest component of our ongoing and enormous health care costs.’

Our organisational culture is a living and breathing entity. Not only do we take air and nourishment from it, we also breathe air and life into it. It is forever pulsating, adapted by each micro movement from within the system. It is a co-creation. Each one of us plays into it and influences the ripples as they are pushed out to others. This is a magical sight to behold when the people are in flow and dance as one. The horrors of the flip side are also true – when we are stressed, burnt out, overwhelmed, lost in our heads and disconnected from our hearts, others are likely to follow and shift into that same mode of living. Mirror Neurons are one of the most important discoveries in the last decade of neuroscience. They allow us to learn through imitation. They enable us to reflect body language, facial expressions, and emotions. Mirror neurons play an essential part in our social life. They are key for healthy child development, as well as relationships, education and leadership. 

I’m very well aware of the impact that comes as result of breathing in this toxic air. I’ve been there before. I know how it feels in my body. The heaviness. The churning. The muck at the bottom of the pot is stirred around. The emotional and psychological burden that I held, was enormous. I carried it with me day in and day out. Brushing it off as normal. Desperately wanting me and my pain to be accepted and validated by others. But at the same time, covering it up with multiple layers of armour and masks so that it would remain invisible to others. Oh the paradox. It took it’s toll and I paid a price. My attention is therefore alerted when I meet others who finds themselves in a similar place.

So, whilst organisations parade themselves and engage in acts of willy waving; ‘Look what we are doing to solve the Environmental Pollution crisis’ (reducing the use of fossil fuels, adopting green procurements policies, recycling) what are they doing about the Social Pollution crisis? Surely we must start caring about the social crisis we are in: the burden of extreme working hours that are placed on people, the break up of healthy family systems, the disconnection from our kids, the impact that this has on our family unit and the burden on healthcare services due to the stress and physical illness that comes as a result. This all bleeds out into the social arena around us; wider family, neighbourhoods, classrooms, social groups. There is no doubt that this is costing us.

There’s data on this — surely there shouldn’t need to be?! Anyway, there is and it suggests that when people come to work sick, they’re not as productive. Companies have a problem with presenteeism; people physically on the job but not really paying attention to what they are doing. This plays into lost workdays from psychological stress and illness, with high health care costs. Seven percent of people in one survey ended up in hospital! In hospital?? Because of workplace stress; 50% had missed time at work because of stress. People are quitting their jobs because of stress. The business costs are enormous.

So, what we know is this. Not only is it costing our own personal health and wellbeing. It is costing the health and wellbeing of our teams. And their families. Our own families. Our healthcare systems are on their knees. Our customer experience is reduced. Our commercial potential is weakened. Our bottom line, shrinks. So, who’s winning…..?

No one. No one is winning. If we act all ostrich like and bury our heads in the sand, there is a perceived short term gain where we can perhaps ignore all that is going on, distract ourselves through praying to the God of Busyness, and wait for a catastrophic event to happen…errrmmmmm, a global pandemic isn’t enough of a catastrophe?! Asking for a friend…

Or we can take action now. We can begin the journey to understanding just how toxic and smoke filled our organisations are. I have talked before about how, in BTFI, we use Barrett to take a pulse check of organisational entropy (dysfunction) – you can read a bit about that here. It’s a starting point that can lead you into having the meaningful conversations that are needed. Whatever route you choose, own it. Own the part you play. We are all leaders, regardless of job title, and therefore the onus rests with each of us to be choosing the ways in which we are influencing the world around us via our own choices and actions.

In the meantime, I do believe that Yoga classes and sleep pods have a place. And they offer only a temporary moment of soothing amongst the chaos. I will continue to work with teams and their leaders to help them nudge their organisational culture so that something more wholesome, healthy and sustainable can emerge. Helping them to slow down, make room, reflect on what truly matters, call out the shitty and damaging behaviours and give themselves permission to embrace a more heart centred and conscious way of living and leading. 

And I will never, ever, let them swerve the uncomfortable conversations. Even if we do have to don our gas masks to do so.

If you are interested to understand how using Barrett and having BTFI stand shoulder to shoulder with you, can support your own cultural emergence, please do get in touch. We can grab a call. Email info@btfi.co.uk to set one up.