Gimme a Break
I’m 29 years old and I just took a break for the first time in my adult life. I’m talking about a real break, during which I spent time with family, saw friends I hadn’t seen for years, took yoga classes during the middle of the day, and had days in a row where I had nothing planned at all. During my time off, I felt a complex surge of emotions, from deep pleasure and relaxation to piercing anxiety and guilt. I thought to myself, I worked hard in emotionally and physically draining conditions for seven years straight, so don’t I deserve this break? But I am also a young, able-bodied, middle class, cisgender white woman who has benefitted from those privileges at every step of my education and ensuing career, so how can I complain, get tired, or get worn out? Am I being lazy? Am I being selfish? Aren’t I lucky to be here?
Burnout for What?
In the midst of this internal debate, two notable things happened:
In January, I read Anne Helen Petersen’s Buzzfeed article on millennial burnout (if you aren’t too burnt out to read it, you should). It resonated with me on a hair-raising, spine-chilling level. When she wrote, “burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition,” I noticed tears welling up in my eyes. I felt deeply understood and validated in my decision to take some time for myself. Maybe I was onto something and my decision to pause, reflect, and refocus was tied to something deeper. There was a distinct possibility that I wasn’t alone in this, and as I began to share the article and discuss burnout with my friends and peers, I heard similar stories which reinforced the theory I soon realized I was developing: the expectations and realities of the working world are exhausting and unsustainable for many, especially those who are just starting out in their careers, eager to learn, and desperate to prove themselves. In the best-case scenario, this eagerness and desperation causes employers to unwittingly take their employees for granted; in the worst, employers can leverage these advantages to control or manipulate their workforce.
As a part of my self-imposed break, I committed to my personal learning and development. For me, this meant deepening my connections to smart and creative people and prioritizing my education. I decided to go to grad school. I dreamt of a career in business consulting for social sustainability. I reached out to my contacts to share my ideas, solicit feedback, and ask for recommendations. Eager to kickstart my learning, I started researching online courses. My ears pricked up when I heard about nRhythm and its regenerative approach to organizational management.
Tre’ Cates founded nRhythm after spending a decade exploring biology and ecology at the Savory Institute (an organization recognized for its successful restoration of grasslands around the globe through holistic land management). He used this experience to inform the development of a framework for regenerative organizational design that nRhythm employs, which seeks to support “living, evolving, and naturally functioning environments or organizations where abundance and resilience are recurring outcomes of their underlying health.”
I wondered if a regenerative approach to management could prevent a phenomenon like burnout, or at least mitigate some of its symptoms. I wanted to know more, and I enrolled in a course that covered the basics of regenerative organizations.
Most businesses are designed to run like machines, with their departments acting as machine parts and their employees representing the cogs and wheels. This design tends to dehumanize employees, reducing them to a set of desired outputs that are consistent and measurable, and ultimately supporting the belief that staff are expendable, even disposable. Machine mentality places immense pressure on individuals to fulfill their duties in the same way each day, each month, and each year, without variance. Employees striving to meet these expectations are incentivized to make personal sacrifices for professional gain, addressing the organizational needs before their own, and are prone to high levels of competition, stress, and, you guessed it…burnout.
What makes something alive? Is an acorn alive? A virus? A company? During the course, nRhythm team member Jeff Su encouraged us to think about life as an “organized system capable of maintaining itself within a boundary of its own making,” meaning it can self-maintain or self-regenerate. We discussed organizations as living, regenerative things that both depend on their environment and also create their environment.
Complex or Complicated?
Rather than seeing organizations as machines, this “living” perspective enables us to understand organizations as complex living systems made up of mutually dependent organs (departments) that are composed of cells (employees). For example, imagine raising a child vs. sending an astronaut to the moon. A complex process such as child-rearing requires ongoing management and care but does not offer final resolution or a singular definition of success or completion. Meanwhile, complicated processes like space travel are solvable and achievable, albeit lengthy and arduous. This distinction is crucial when considering the implications of how an organization runs. Complex organizations tend to operate with a holistic, systems-based approach, while complicated organizations tend to rely heavily on rigid structures and a linear approach.
Food Chain or Food Web?
To better understand the difference between these two approaches, consider the image of a simple food chain. The circle represents a mechanical order; each point on the circle happens chronologically, following the predictable cycle of life and death. On the other hand, consider the image of a food web, a detailed network illustrating the complex connections between every component in an ecosystem. When one element is affected, all are affected. Some elements must die out in order for others to thrive, all are constantly seeking a balance. This concept should inform the management of a holistic organization. Helpful questions to ask may be, what processes are not working? What needs to be phased out? What can be recycled?
Adopting this approach, we acknowledge that an organization is a complex, living thing and that the health of all of its parts is necessary for the overall health of the system. Additionally, this requires a new framework for measuring organizational success, one that does not just concern itself with ‘business as usual’ metrics like profits, growth, production volume, and market reach. It requires the consideration of regenerative elements that nRhythm defines as: energy flow, information cycle, communication cycle, and network connections. These indicators focus on thriving individuals, refining the core processes that connect individuals and departments, and the relationships to individuals and entities outside of the organization. An organization employing this framework will not only view itself as an ecosystem but will also see itself in the context of a larger ecosystem of partner companies, organizations, government agencies, and other actors. Under these circumstances, the true health of people and the planet can start to be meaningfully addressed.
As for my own health, I am beginning what I hope to be a lifelong practice of balancing my own needs with the needs of my surroundings. I will continue to refer to these regenerative principles to inform decisions about my personal and professional life. The nRhythm approach offers a solid foundation for inciting meaningful change in the capitalist system and addressing issues like employee burnout, resource extraction, and infinite growth. After taking this course, I am left with some of my questions answered but many more questions to ask.
For now, I’m starting with these: How can companies that are not pursuing regenerative practices become engaged in this kind of work? What are the incentives for it and who can provide them? What is our role as employees and business owners? What role can local and national governments play?
Author’s Note - May 12, 2020: A lot has changed in the 12 months since I wrote this article. For most of us, reality has shifted dramatically with the rise of the global pandemic. On a personal level, after pumping the brakes hard and relaxing for a couple of months, I started to build back up to a familiar routine: days packed with meetings, weekends spent tapping like a cat meme on the computer, and miraculous, fleeting time for exercise and socializing squeezed in between. Although my schedule is booked again, something feels different. I feel different. I am taking breaks, saying no to things that seem like too much, working out most days and sleeping enough most nights. By taking time to slow down, I was finally able to build healthier boundaries and routines into my life that have stuck, at least so far.
I recognize my ability to take time off and build personal and professional boundaries is possible due to the variety of privileges that I hold. And I don’t claim to have found the antidote to burnout, because that can be no cure to this ‘disease’ until we achieve systemic change and stop extracting value from workers as the default business model. Until then, all workers, especially hourly employees, workers in informal industries, and those whose work isn’t counted because it is unpaid (mothers, caretakers, etc.) remain particularly vulnerable to the effects of burnout, manipulation, and abuse.
Now is the time when everything changes. This virus has reinforced my belief that a holistic approach to managing organizations and living in community with others is both beneficial and necessary for our overall well-being. Many people are fighting for their lives on the frontlines of the pandemic. Others have lost their jobs. Still, others have the privilege to work from home yet suffer the emotional toll that this uncertain time takes. We are all affected, and so we can all be included in creating a way forward that remembers and appreciates the connections and interdependence of all life on this planet.