The way we work: a watershed moment?

Having been in hibernation since the beginning of the year, I thought it was about time to communicate with the outside world again. Since temporarily stepping away from my career at the end of last year to focus on my PhD (examining  working from home (WFH), flourishing and technology), I’ve been analysing the online survey responses and immersing myself in a key research theme; well-being and flourishing.

Before I started this research, I hadn’t thought too much about what it means to flourish. Maybe just being happy and doing well? The dictionary definition of flourishing is relatively generic: ‘growing or developing successfully’, so it might surprise you that flourishing has a very specific meaning in terms of psychological well-being and positive mental health.  Keyes (2002), the American sociologist and psychologist, coined the term flourishing in the psychological context, “flourishing represents the achievement of a balanced life in which individuals feel good about lives in which they are functioning well”.

The graphic below illustrates mental well-being on a spectrum from low to high, with flourishing being on the high end of the spectrum . There’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ place to be on the spectrum and you’ll notice that most people are considered to have ‘mental wellness’ and be somewhere in the middle. We can move across the spectrum depending on what is going on in our lives and work.

In 2019/20 it was estimated that 828,000 UK workers were suffering from work-related stress depression or anxiety (ONS, 2020). That’s 51% of all work-related illness and works out at 17.9 million working days lost to work-related stress, depression and anxiety. Work-related stress has been on the increase in the UK and the impact of Covid-19 on our lives in increasing stress and anxiety levels for many people.  

Pre Covid-19 the responsible employers were focused on how to address the increasing levels of work-related stress. Since Covid-19, lots of people working from home are experiencing significant levels of stress for different reasons and employers are looking for ways to help them.  Whilst this is obviously the right thing to do, I wonder how employers can reverse the trend and address the current WFH challenges? Could this be a watershed moment where organisations will actually look at addressing the root causes of work-related stress rather than just ‘papering over the cracks’? Is this the time for fundamental change in working practices?

That’s my research in a nutshell, I’m interested in what impact working from home has on our experience of flourishing and what role technology plays. Does ICT (information and communication technology) help or hinder? I’m excited to tell you that my analysis is unearthing some interesting themes which I will share in future messages. In the meantime, if you would like to find out more you can have a look at my little website. It gets lonely in hibernation so if you have any ideas or thoughts to share, please get in touch with me (r02sb18@abdn.ac.uk).

My Flourishing Life

You may recognise the matryoshka dolls in the image below. Also known as babushka dolls, they are carved wooden dolls nesting inside each other. Whilst matryoshka is Russian for ‘little matron’, the image is often used as a metaphor for family or the unity of body, soul, mind, heart and spirit. They may also be seen by some as representing the layers of life and experiences that contribute to our identity.

2021 offers a new start for me in more ways than one. Having decided to focus on my PhD research (examining working from home and flourishing), I am officially no longer an employee. When I was trying to do both, be an employee and a researcher, I felt that I couldn’t give my research project the time it deserved. I felt tired, demotivated and felt like I was wading through sinking sand, slowly disappearing. In fact, my experience of life at that time was the opposite of the flourishing life I have spent the last two years reading, writing and thinking about. I decided that to be authentic, I had to try my best to live a flourishing life.  

To use the matryoshka doll analogy, for me this is my opportunity to grown and learn, maybe move up and into a new ‘doll’. I believe it’s also a time to reconnect with the tiny ‘doll’ at the core of my identity. To mark this, I’ve decided start using my birth surname professionally. Why? My main reason is that all my academic qualifications so far have had my husband’s surnames and when I eventually complete my PhD studies, I want it to represent ‘me’. So, say hello to Susan Reid Elder and wish me luck with my research and my flourishing life.

work life balance

Why should you care?

I have been working since the age of 5 (a long story……my parents had a small business that we were all expected to work in) and so I feel that I can talk with real life experience that if you’re not careful work can suck you in and spit you out, while life passes you by. I believe that ‘work life balance’ is becoming one of those phrases we are in danger of misunderstanding. We don’t stop living when we go to work and we don’t stop working when we live.  Good work can and should contribute to a balanced life and vice versa.

It’s only 5 days until my confidential, online PhD survey closes. “So what? Why should I care?” you might ask. I could start by telling you about the personal side of this story. I have given up my full-time job to focus on and accelerate the research project. That’s how important I think it is and how committed I am to examine the experience of working from home since Covid-19 and how it’s affected our well-being. I want to make a difference.

I could continue by giving you the business reason why you should care. In my 2- year HR career , many so called ‘experts’ have sold me the next best thing in working practice, people development and engagement initiatives that they promised would revolutionise the world of work and realise the talent and potential of my colleagues. Not many were based on robust science and research; most were selling the ideas of others, dressed up as innovative new thinking. In my experience very few actually delivered on their promises.

The main reason I think you should care is that this affects you and your children. We live in the 21st century and as Barack Obama explained in his uplifting view of the world this is the best time in human history. As we move out of Covid-19, we have a wonderful opportunity to reshape the world of work and as a consequence the re-balance the way we live. I want to play a part in that, no matter how small, to contribute through my ‘unique and original contribution’ which is my PhD project.

You can play a part in the research by completing my survey which closes on Friday 11th December 2020. Thank you if you’ve already completed the survey, please ask your colleagues and friends who work in support of the UK energy sector and who have been working at home to complete it. In particular, I’m looking for participation from people who work in renewables, nuclear, electricity and gas utilities, academia, supply chain and government departments across the UK to take part.

The more we understand about the challenges of this evolving work environment, the greater our chances of getting the balance right in future.

Why this research topic and why now?

People have asked why I selected my PhD research topic. My simple answer is that I feel that it’s time for me to give something back and in some small way contribute to solving one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. The scale of the challenge, providing energy to a growing global population while dealing with the climate change emergency and the impact of Covid-19, requires a whole new level of human innovation, collaboration and creativity. 

I’m not an engineer or inventor so I can’t contribute to the amazing technological breakthroughs that are required. My professional career has always focused on people and I hope that my research project, examining the experience of working from home during Covid-19 and how that impacts well-being, will inform exciting new approaches to working practices.

I believe we need to find creative solutions that allows us to flourish in this hybrid working environment. There are many benefits to working from home and we have a chance to unlock greater efficiencies and take some vital first steps towards reducing our impact on the environment, kick starting a return to a greener way of life. However, there are also many challenges to working in isolation. I want to explore this topic thoroughly so we can develop a viable way of working that brings us more time for our loved ones and ourselves while developing a more sustainable long-term energy industry.

The other question people ask me is why I’m giving up a great job to commit full time to the research project. My answer again is a simple one. Time! I started the PhD part-time 2 years ago and it will take another 4 years to complete it if I continue in this mode. By then the findings will be obsolete and I will have missed my opportunity to help. The world is changing quickly, and I hope that by accelerating the project I can offer robust findings that will support, develop, motivate and realise the full potential of people working across the UK.

It’s not too late for you to contribute to the research. So if you work in support of the UK energy industry (directly, indirectly, supply chain, academia etc) and were office based before Covid-19 and home based since, click here to complete the survey (takes 10 minutes)..  The closing date for the survey is Friday 11th December. You can also find out more about the research project here

What’s my PhD motivation?

I thought I would start by explaining why I wanted to start this PhD journey. 

When I was a little girl growing up in a small town in the North East of Scotland, we used to visit my grandparents most Sundays. My grandad always used to ask which of his grandchildren would be a doctor. In his day, the doctor, along with the church minister and schoolteacher were the most respected professions in the community. Unfortunately, medicine was never a career choice for me. Having had a love of learning throughout my life, I started this PhD on a distance learning basis two years ago with the University of Aberdeen. I may never be a medical doctor, but I hope that my grandad will be proud if I can complete the PhD and be a ‘Dr’.