Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 16, 2019
A friend of mine buys me breakfast and asks for advice. His son, a freshman at a top college, is unhappy and wants to quit and come home. So what else is new?
As we noodled through the pieces, the issue got vastly more interesting. Words like resilience, grit, depression, entitlement, happiness and success got mixed in with the breakfast burrito. I wanted to see if this problem also resonates in the workplace. So I turned to Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at Harvard Business School. Her research says, “Every year depression affects one in every five employees and costs American businesses $210 billion in medical bills and lost productivity.” Wow.
Before we go further into the research, let me reset the stage a bit. My friend is a large, handsome Navy veteran, who built a big business. His military and family background came out of the “shut up and just get it done” school. He’s in his late 50s. He is quite sensitive to the pressures young men and women face at this time, but he is not sure what to do in this specific case. Does he say, “sure, no problem, son, come home,” or “you cannot quit or else” or “perhaps you should see a therapist.” And there are another dozen possible sentences.
Let’s pause again. The son thinks he might want to be an entrepreneur. Well, I will tell you there is no job description for that occupational specialty. You can be a doctor, lawyer accountant or bricklayer, and each of those come with a set of skills, a body of learning that educates you to perform a certain piece of work. In my mind, this “entrepreneur” thing is a fraud perpetrated on young people in college who major in that very topic and find upon graduation that the appellation they have achieved qualifies them for much less than they may have imagined.
Back to Whillans and her study in “resilience training.” She worked with a startup, Happify, which funded her research (classic protocol with several groups). She found that the employees who used the platform became less depressed and experienced less anxiety and workplace distress. (There are at least another handful of companies with competing applications that do the same thing). But is this happiness thing overrated?
I am not willing to discount the power of depression and its adverse effects on human productivity and interactions. I know because I have touched that third rail myself from time to time. How to deal with it — whether with your offspring or with your employees — does not have an easy solution. But the darker sentence is when did this increase in the “unhappiness index” occur and why?
My friend and I wondered about the generation from World War II, and then we wondered about our parents’ generation, and then our own generation and finally about his son. Admittedly this is a small sample to extrapolate from, but when did “well-being interventions and wellness programs” become part of the dialogue of a corporate human resource program? Whillan’s research detailed various ways that companies encourage employees to “take care of themselves, take time off, exercise, do holistic yoga and use quiet time rooms.”
I understand the need, and I admit there is a problem, but what I am asking is, when did the switch get flipped? Is it affluence, is it social media, is it politics, is it technology, what is it? While I know the enormous cost of human misery, at the same time there is a part of me that asks if these programs that cater to a younger generation are an indulgence. When did “comforting” become the norm, what happened to grit and resilience — and can you equally promote those characteristics?
Investors always say they bet on the team. And the leader of the team needs multiple skills and traits, but one word that echoes through every venture capitalist conference room is “relentlessness.” I do not believe that the tough love approach fits all puzzles, but when did wellness programs and mindfulness training become the equivalent of foosball tables and free lunches? I confess I do not have any answers, but I am reasonably certain that the Earth has tilted a bit off its axis since “The Greatest Generation” went to work.
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Email ideas to [email protected].
Rule No. 627
Can I get a witness?