So, for today’s serious analysis of the modern workplace, I want you to imagine you’re a hedgehog.
There you are, snuffling about in the forest, doing all of your normal hedgehoggy things.
Yes, you’re covered in fleas, but you look adorable!
Then one day you reach a strange bit of the forest which feels a lot harder underfoot, and then there are these two strange bright lights coming at you…
Now, we all know what you should do, which is probably run for it.
But we also know what you (as a hedgehog) are likely to do, which is roll up into a ball.
Now, this doesn’t make you a bad hedgehog.
You’re an excellent hedgehog, you just weren’t evolved for the particular environment you’re now in.
This is what is known as an ‘evolutionary mismatch’.
Now of course we humans aren’t like hedgehogs. We are way more advanced! We’ve even developed flea powder!
But in some ways we are a lot like hedgehogs, in that we didn’t evolve for the environment we are in either….
Why it is so hard to be human
For 99.9% of our evolutionary existence, humans would gather in small groups, forage and hunt for food, we were active in the day and slept when dark, our lives shaped by our environment.
Our ancestors moved a lot (over 15,000 steps per day according to Fitbit’s early records), and ate a wide variety of food.
In his book Origins; How the Earth Made Us, Lewis Dartnell shows how evolution and our environment are not separate events – our biology was shaped by nature.
Every cell in our bodies evolved in sequence with a daily rhythm, (primarily driven by exposure to light).
Yet fast forward to today and everything has changed.
Far from being tethered to nature, we now work in a way which is independent from these daily rhythms.
Where once we were connected to the earth and to each other, today we feel more connected but also more isolated.
For many of us, we hardly see daylight, we are largely sedentary (most of us now walking closer to 5,000 steps per day), and we work more or less constantly.
No surprise that work feels a daily grind…
Biologically and psychologically we evolved to work in a daily rhythm, and disrupting this rhythm leads to a kind of dysregulation, affecting everything from sleep to mental health.
This is another evolutionary mismatch.
Covid as the great accelerator
And Covid has accelerated these trends.
I first met Annette, a senior manager at one of the major airlines, in Spring of 2020.
She told me how when the Covid crisis took hold she and her team had moved into ‘emergency mode’, working round the clock to try and save the business, but
‘now it’s 16 months later and it feels like we’re still in the same pattern’.
From speaking to 1000s of people in many different industries last year, I know many can relate.
Many of us have been drawn into routines which we didn’t consciously design, and which have become unsustainable.
The issue is not whether we can carry on – most of us are good at soldiering on – but whether this is the best we can aim for. If you look at the statistics on mental health since Covid, I would argue not.
But what can we do about this, and where should we start?
Understanding high-performance routines
The first step is to build awareness that we are working in routines for which our brains and bodies were not evolved.
We are working out of sync with the rhythms that shaped our entire biology.
Arguably we don’t even notice the cost we’re paying, because it has become the water we swim in.
Yet by operating in a way which is divorced from our biology we create huge challenges to health and mental health.
There is hope, though.
Unlike hedgehogs, we can do more than just roll up into a ball.
In the next article I will explain what a high-performance routine looks like.
But in the meantime you can build awareness of your existing routine by trying this quiz, which will give you feedback as to whether you might benefit from strengthening your routine.
It is freely available to anyone, including hedgehogs (though admittedly you might need a mouse).