Human Experience: The New Psychological Contract of Work

October 20, 2021

[On the 3rd March our CEO, James Brogan gave the opening keynote talk at Talent Summit 2021. If you attended you can catch the replay on But if you’d prefer to read all about it… this blog is a summary of James’ talk.]

We’re all fantasising about getting ‘back to normal’ after the spread of Covid-19 has been gotten under control. But from the stats, we know that getting ‘back to normal’ for a lot of people isn’t going to be that great.

We’ve known for a while that there was something amiss about our people at work. According to Gallup in 2018, 53% of workers are "not engaged" in their job. This has been as high as 85% more recently.

We need a new approach.

We need to stop analyzing the lagging indicators (like an engagement survey, or a productivity report) and start analyzing the leading indicators that affect people and their ability to perform.

The big question for organisations is how can we make the work experience a more human experience?

Monday… ugh...

If we start, literally, at the beginning of the week, how do you feel when I get out of bed on Monday morning? Everything that is swirling around in our heads and bodies affects how we turn up for work on a Monday morning.  

It's about the mood your in - how will this impact my willingness to socialise with work colleagues?

How energetic am I feeling? How will this impact the first interaction with your manager?

What happened at home over the weekend? Any argument or worries will absorb mental energy and distract you from what you should be doing.

It's about all these feelings that affect your ability to realise your potential to do great work on that particular day.

Work and mental health

The engagement survey mentioned previously is a lagging indicator that something is wrong. So too is productivity. By the time we’ve received this data, the damage has been done.

If we look at some of the anecdotal evidence we start to uncover a bigger, more serious problem. The term 'mental health' is being searched twice as much as Kim Kardashian in Google. There are now 5 times more Google search results on the topic “mental health at work” compared to Kim. Surely this is the proof point that we need when it comes to mainstream culture.

Mental health is becoming a massive issue in society and work is seen as a cause.

We also have real data to confirm that the work experience is causing an issue for people’s mental health

  • 70% of Irish employees are experiencing some form of stress at work.
  • in the US 61% of employees said pressure in work was the leading cause of stress.

The deterioration of the mental health of employees costs the US economy $300bn each year in absence and medical care.

Again, this data predates Covid-19.

Our hosts at Talent Summit, Sigmar Recruitment recently published their TALENT LEADERS PULSE REPORT 2021. The results are fascinating and give a window into what we can expect post-Covid.

Based on the survey results,   the impact of Covid-19 on the workforce we see it has added an extra layer of complexity. At the moment,  81% of the Irish workforce currently working full time remote and 13% full time in the office, just 6% are currently working a hybrid of the two.

This hybrid workforce is expected to jump from 6% today to 44% with a further 22% working remotely full time in 2021 as COVID-19 restrictions lift.

And there’s the rub… how can we assess leading indicators to our peoples’ performance when they are not onsite like before?

Wellbeing: a starting point, not a solution

wellbeing in the workplace

At this point in my talk, I think everyone was expecting me to say that the solution to all this is wellbeing. It helps. But for us at PepTalk, wellbeing is often the starting point of the solution but not the totality.  

There's a bigger conversation to be had.

Wellbeing can sometimes be used as a series of box-ticking exercises that are supposed to address the issues highlighted by lagging indicators. We need to be careful that we're not just looking at the symptoms when we think about Monday morning.

A webinar, a lunch and learn, some yoga classes, an app with a step counter, more beanbags for those that can make it into the office, fruit in the canteen every morning and a beer in the fridge on a Friday… None of these address the root cause of the problem.

For example, if most of your people are working remotely, have your managers ever asked them if they are lonely?

employee engagement human experience

The loneliness epidemic

Vivek Murthy shined a light on what he called the loneliness epidemic that was sweeping across the US during his time as the US Surgeon General. He equated loneliness to the equivalent of smoking 15 a day and it could reduce your IQ in the same way as if you’d missed a night's sleep.

In the context of work things like isolation, lack of connection, lack of engagement and apathy for your work and colleagues all could be described as manifestations of loneliness. And, all of these things can happen when you are in a building full of people. This is not a new phenomenon or unique to dealing with the pandemic. This is about a supportive environment and positive workplace culture, not about location.

While loneliness is categorised as a social problem it has a profound physical and mental impact too. To create a solution, we need to address all three.

Small changes over time

What we are talking about is the behaviours that we're displaying with our colleagues every day. Are they creating a supportive environment and positive workplace culture regardless of whether this is in person, on Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Google Meet.

How do we humanise our behaviours, to make sure that we are creating a supportive environment and positive workplace culture?

One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where

  1. your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour (mental and physical)
  2. you already have something in common with the group/tribe (social)

As simple as that sounds, we know that one of the common reasons behavioural change for wellbeing is not adopted more readily in organisations is because of permission. Sometimes the perception amongst the employees is that they don’t have permission to get involved during work hours. Other times it can be due to a lack of endorsement from the C-suite. The wellbeing stuff is passed down to staff to use if they need it… and if they don’t use it, ‘we’ll stop paying for it, it’s up to them’.

All that is required is a little but often. As the graph from James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits outlines, it’s more about commitment over time than colossal transformative singular events.

So, that represents the challenge. We must try and normalize behaviours designed to create a positive human experience to unlock the potential of this new world of work.

How does this happen?

At this point, I thought it'd be useful just to think a little bit about how work happens at the moment and the current design of work. And just to focus on several areas that we can begin to think about how we're going to humanize that, and how do we bring physical, social and mental considerations into how we interact?

ONE - Better conversations

workplace wellbeing conversations

The first point I'll touch on is better conversations. And there are two key points to what I'm going to focus on here.

The first is around healing conversations.

In our organization, we work with companies to facilitate better manager conversations. And they're simple conversations. They're as simple as ‘what are you grateful for this month?’ ‘What gives you pleasure in your life?’ ‘What would you like to do in 2021?’

These conversations represent the opportunity to have compassionate conversations.  

A study at Johns Hopkins University looked at the reaction of patients whose doctors spent a little time talking with them. It was a randomized controlled trial of a compassion intervention in cancer patients. All the doctors were asked to do was to show some compassion during their daily rounds. A simple statement such as  - “We’re going to be here with you. We’re going to go through this together. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

The direct results of the compassionate messages was a lowering of patients’ anxiety around their condition thereby improving their response to treatments. Best of all, when they timed it, they found it took 40 seconds to deliver a compassionate message.

The second conversation we can have is around meetings. Specifically, can we think about meetings in a different way?

There has been a lot of talk a lot about walking meetings to give people working from home a reason to leave the house and/or increase their step count. But there is also a little science behind the idea. Research suggests that people are 60% more creative when they have walking meetings, their mood improves, their energy level improves and they're much more focused.

So better conversations and the environment by which we have our conversations at work needs to be looked at.

TWO - More shared experiences

human shared experiences

The second piece is around shared experiences.

As we mentioned above, loneliness can have profound physical effects on a person. It has been estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years, equivalent in impact to being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

But there’s is also evidence that a perceived sense of social isolation accelerates cognitive and functional decline and can serve as a preclinical sign for Alzheimer’s disease.

Coincidentally, the common denominator in high performing teams is also the antidote to loneliness.

Google’s Project Aristotle sought to find what its best performing teams had in common. Surprisingly, individuals with higher intelligence, better prior knowledge, more experience, and more qualifications were not guaranteed to produce a high-performing team.

Teams that exhibited high levels of psychological safety were the best performers. Psychological safety describes a level of mental comfort that people feel they will have equal opportunities to speak, knowing that they’ll be heard when they do speak and having the confidence to share anything with their peers.

This is especially important in the world of hybrid working. We need to find the water cooler moments for remote and hybrid workers.

Wellbeing can be a unifier

At PepTalk, one of the most important points about wellbeing in the workplace is it can be a great unifier from the CEO to the intern starting in an organization. What we're talking about here are shared experiences that generate social capital and breeds psychological safety.

I think the onus is on us as leaders to figure out how do we can do that? How do we figure out how to better build the experiences that are going to bind our organisation, and create an environment that people feel valued, and gives a better sense of purpose to those employees?

THREE - (The right) Data and insight

employee engagement data insights

The last piece to touch on is around data and insights.

As I touched on earlier, engagement and productivity reports are lagging indicators, what we need to focus on to drive real change are leading indicators.

I think that's a really important point, that over time, we can record the right data that can help us make better decisions about the world of work and about the human experience within that, mental, social or physical.

This is a real possibility especially if you are analysing some consistent behaviour. A Spanish study analysed data from 90 Twitter users suffering from depression. It was able to identify when the 90 users were struggling with their depression hardest from the numbers of tweets they sent, the time they sent the tweets, the number of nouns and verbs being used in the tweets versus a control set of tweets. All possible from data analysis.

This type of data could be a powerful leading indicator for employees if gathered through a pulsing tool or by observing the usage of any online wellbeing tools and apps. If you understand the mood your employees are turning up for work in you can assess the need for intervention. These types of leading indicators help you get ahead of a problem.

Embedding the Human Experience (Hx)

embedding human experience work

This final graph highlights why wellbeing is the starting point but not the totality. The shaded areas describe unsuccessful and successful ways of learning through behavioural change.

The blue shaded area is when the webinar, lunch and learn, yoga classes, etc. are rolled out and greeted with a wave of enthusiasm. The ‘slope to nope’ happens because the one-off perk is down to the individual to pursue on their own. But they can’t because of the perception around permission or lack of encouragement from senior management or because they’re just oo busy.

The yellow shaded area shows what happens when there is an endorsement from the C-suite supporting the wellbeing initiatives. The whole organisation is involved and managers are empowered to provide the teams with the autonomy to carve out a piece of time every day that goes towards creating a supportive environment and positive workplace culture.

When the work experience becomes a more human experience, we know the ROI will follow.

In organisations that have a more human experience, employees are naturally more engaged, which results in

  • 18% HIGHER productivity (sales)
  • 23% HIGHER profitability
  • 81%  LOWER absenteeism

All of which was achieved without the need to tell anyone to ‘work harder’.

At PepTalk, we passionately believe that all this is possible once the commitment from the organisation and everyone in it is there.

PepTalk workplace wellbeing human experience

James Brogan
CEO and Co-founder. Former MD of Legacy Communications. Ex Dublin footballer and All-Ireland winner.
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