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 the month-long course that covered the basics of regenerative organizations.
In the business world, companies are often viewed as machines, with departments serving as parts comprised of cogs and wheels that are individual employees. In this metaphor, the employee is automatically dehumanized and reduced to a set of skills or actions, implying that they are replaceable, even disposable. This mentality places immense pressure on individuals to fulfill their duties each day, each month, each year, without variance. Employees striving to meet these expectations often 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. Jeff also encouraged us to think of organizations as living things that are regenerative, that depend on their environment and that also create their environment.
COMPLEX OR COMPLICATED?
A living organization is complex, not just complicated. Rather than seeing organizations as machines, this new “living” perspective enables us to see a living system made up of mutually dependent organs (departments) that are comprised of cells (employees). For example, think of 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 unified definition of success or completion. Meanwhile, complicated processes like space travel can be solved and achieved, even if the process is long and arduous. A key difference is that in order to work in these environments, the former requires a holistic, systems-based approach, while the latter can be broken down into segments or steps.
The concept of holistic management can perhaps best be illustrated by comparing the images of the circle of life with a trophic cascade. The idea of the circle is parallel to that of a machine; each part has a specific and rigid role to play. Real life is more complex, chaotic, and nuanced. It requires that some things suffer and die in order for others to thrive. All systems, whether businesses or food chains, have some process of decay and recycling of resources in order to regenerate and remain healthy. Therefore, in a regenerative organization, we should regularly be asking questions such as, “What processes are not working? What needs to die? 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?”
After earning a degree in International Studies and Global Security from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Amelia Ahl sought to leverage her research, design, and project management skills towards social and humanitarian impact. Ahl worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Washington, D.C. to advocate for international protection for women and children fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico, supporting the production of twin reports Children on the Run (2014) and Women on the Run (2015).
Ahl’s interest in progressive social business models drew her to Traditional Medicinals Foundation, where she worked at the intersection of social enterprise and community development. There she focused on implementing and overseeing a social development program in Rajasthan, India, working with rural communities to support water security, income generation, education, community self-reliance, and women’s empowerment. Ahl is now a consultant for sustainable businesses and is pursuing a dual MBA/MPA in Sustainable Solutions at Presidio Graduate School. She lives in Oakland, CA.