This disconcerting image (above) is a drawing from Lennart Levi, who has given 4,000 lectures and seminars around the world dealing with problems and solutions in Occupational, Public and Mental Health. He uses this analogy to describe how we sometimes force ourselves to fit into jobs that restrict or confine us, and it causes a great deal of stress.  Levi is no stranger to this issue, he really knows what he’s talking about.

Lennart Levi, MD, PhD, became Sweden’s first Professor of Psychosocial Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1978. In 1959 he founded and chaired the Karolinska’s Department of Stress Research, which in 1973 was designated the first World Health Organization Centre in this field. In 1980, he also founded and directed the National Swedish Institute for Psychosocial Factors and Health (IPM). From 1982-2005 he was Chair of the Section on Occupational Psychiatry of the World Psychiatric Association and was President of the International Stress Management Association. Before and after his retirement in 1995, he has been an advisor to WHO, ILO and the European Commission in his field.

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Karolinska Institute Research Center Stockholm, design competition: C. F. Møller Architects | Berg Arkitektkontor

His research has been out there for a while, but his colleagues have expanded and evolved his ideas exponentially.  It’s worth checking out some of their recent articles if occupational stress is of interest to you.  Interestingly, I posted the foot/shoe image on my Facebook book page on October 3 of this year along with a little description.  I post a variety of articles there, and some of them get lots of spreading, but this post was spread the most.  It now has been “liked” by 1,500 people and “shared” by roughly 600, an indication that it resonates with people and with people they know.  I think possibly this is because women’s shoes are truly terrible ergonomically, but also that many people connect with Levi’s point as it relates to job stress.  Here are a few of their comments:

  • “Yes we do try to squeeze ourselves into jobs that just aren’t comfortable causing stress on various points (home, family, spiritual life, and every aspect of life). I know I am trying so hard to wear that shoe and yet I know I can’t anymore.”
  • “When u hate your job, it takes over your life.”
  • “My job is profit oriented and unwittingly hurts employees with whacky schedules and lack of Sunday time to worship. Looking!”

You want to know the second most popular “liked” post?  It was a Time magazine article about how some retailers are giving their people the day off (paid) on Black Friday.  Interesting.  I think there are many times when we are just happy to have a job, but there comes a time, when our job starts to control our lives in a very destructive way.  I feel like for short periods of time this is OK, but over the long term, a job that “takes over life” can’t be good for anyone.

I was going for a run with a friend recently, and I mentioned all of these great health-conscious companies I have been interviewing, and how, when they have truly invested in the health and well-being of their employees, they have seen their investments pay off in spades.  “The trouble with this concept in general,” my friend pointed out, “is that most businesses don’t think like that.  Most businesses are set up to use and abuse their people until they wear them out, and then backfill their positions with people cheaper and younger.”  Of course she’s right.  There are some shining examples of companies out there who are trying to engage people and improve their well-being to benefit the bottom line, but they still seem to be the exception.

It’s not that I blame companies, or even the individual managers who are driving their people to work so hard – heck, I’ve been one of them!  I guess I blame our U.S. corporate culture and a business model that hasn’t evolved much over the least 250 years.  It’s like we’re still thinking about people as we did in the Industrial Revolution, as brute force workers in a factory, mindlessly producing stuff.  But this model is so outdated, even in actual factories!

How long are we going to continue to create jobs and companies using a model that disengages, overwhelms and generally stresses us out?  Businesses can’t keep leaning on the fact that “we’re still in a recession” to excuse the fact that their people are working 2 or 3 jobs.  It’s time we took a hard look at what makes us uniquely human, creative, inspired and awesome, and build work and companies around that.  I’m not just saying this because I care about people, of course I do, but I also am really worried about how our outdated view of “how to run a business” is inhibiting long term economic growth.

Most companies are just generally inefficient and there is a lot of human energy lost just keeping them running – they can be more paperwork than progress.  And companies are not exactly long-lived or resilient either.  Geoffrey West, who has studied 30,000 publicly traded companies in the U.S. over the last 60 years, found that the average lifespan of a company already on the stock exchange is about 10 years and the larger the company, the more inefficient they become (see The Long Now Foundation and an article on Percolate).

I wonder, what will be our wake-up call?  Will it be crippling health care costs, bankrupt companies, or is it possible that U.S. corporations will start to see health, well-being, engagement and human performance as the ultimate competitive advantage?  And how long will it take us…  another 250 years?  In the mean time, I’m pleased to see that workers are voting with their feet.  Their shoes don’t fit, and they are finding ones that do.