When We All Show Up Burned Out At Work
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In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, Chris Smalls was an hourly worker at a warehouse in Staten Island. Today, he is the president of the Amazon Labor Union. In this episode, we learn about how working conditions can contribute to burnout in workplaces across America. We’ll also hear about what we can all do to redesign workplaces to avoid burnout.
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Correction: A previous version of this episode had an incorrect statistic related to Amazon’s hiring pacing, which has since been removed.
Lenore Palladino, Chris Smalls, Robert Bruno, Chris Mark, Connor Franta, Christina Maslach, Janice, Eric Langshur
Chris Smalls 00:03
When I had new hires, I would tell them to cancel their gym memberships. Because these buildings are massive, I’ve pretty much walked the state of Rhode Island every single day, about 30 miles a day. They have to eat healthy, they have to drink a lot of water, stay hydrated, especially in the summertime, these buildings can, you know, really get up there in temperature, almost 16 to 20 miles of conveyor belt, and they run 24/7. And so they generate a lot of heat. You’re bending, you’re reaching, you’re pulling all day long. So that’s 10 to 12 hours inside the warehouse. But that’s not even including their commutes, you know, we’re talking, two and a half, three hour commute each way. So long day, 16-hour days or more for these workers, including myself. Picking customer items from what we call you know, Akiba robots, they look like bookshelves. They bring over like books, CDs, a lot of customer orders of cosmetics, costume jewelry. And as a picker, were supposed to pick them at a rate of 400 an hour. And if you don’t make that quota, you know, Amazon has a way of getting you out to build. Unfortunately,
Connor Franta 01:33
For five long years, Chris Smalls worked for Amazon as an hourly warehouse worker.
Chris Smalls 01:41
That’s the name of Amazon’s game, you know, hire and fire. When you’re in the building, you shouldn’t forget about it, you’re thinking about your productivity, you’re thinking about doing the right things, because there’s 1000 ways to get fired. But there’s only a few ways to keep your job there.
Connor Franta 02:17
When I hear about those conditions in the Amazon warehouse, I start to sweat. I get this little tickle in my stomach and I know it’s anxiety. I could not do that job. It makes me deeply uncomfortable to know there are 1000s of people who have to do that job. I’m thinking, Oh my God, please, Chris, take care of yourself. I didn’t need that tiny costume cowboy hat that badly. I didn’t think about it. That by clicking the button would mean someone else in a warehouse far away, would be forced to burn themselves out like that. But then again, this is BURNOUT. And I’m your host, Connor Franta. So what did I really expect? In last episode, we learned that burnout happens in our bodies, when our response to chronic stress, well, sucks. And trust me, everyone’s response to chronic stress sucks, unless they work really, really hard at not sucking. But not everyone has the time and the privilege to work really, really hard at it. So this week, we’re taking the weight off of your shoulders. We’re zooming out from your body to look at your environment, the where and the how of your work. Because having the tools to manage your stress is absolutely progress. But it’s not going to stop the stressors from kicking in your door like a greasy corporate version of the Kool Aid man. So, we’re going straight to the source. Employers. Are your ears burning? Employers of America, have a seat. We need to talk. I know it can be hard to own up to these things. But you have a big problem. And this is an intervention.
Christina Maslach 04:14
The analogy I prefer is the canary in the coal mine.
Connor Franta 04:17
Christina Maslach is the social psychologist we met in the first episode. In the early 1980s. Her groundbreaking research defined workplace burnout. And she’s continued that line of study ever since Christina is 100% when it comes to pointing out the root cause of burnout.
Christina Maslach 04:34
The canary, you know, was put down in the coal mines before the miners in order to see if it was safe. And if it’s having trouble breathing, if it’s having trouble functioning, it’s a signal. It’s a sign that the environment down there is unsafe. What you need to do is not fix the bird, you know and make it more resilient and more strong and all that kind of thing. You need to fix the environment so that the bird can go there and safely do their work and come back out again.
Connor Franta 05:02
It may look a little different for each of us, but we all work in our own version of the coal mine. For Chris Smalls, his coal mine was hardly as dark as a dungeon. Were like, achingly bright, under the harsh glare of too many fluorescence. His first job with Amazon was at a warehouse in New Jersey in 2015.
Chris Smalls 05:23
I was hired as an entry level as a picker that promoted up in my first year to a process assistant, or assistant manager.
Connor Franta 05:31
Every day, he’d go inside and become a human cog at the center of a massive and carefully orchestrated stuff moving mechanism. Picture this, you’re at your station in the middle of the machine, straight ahead of you, robotic bookshelves full of stuff.
Chris Smalls 05:49
No, you name it, they have it inside this book shelve, scanning nonstop. Every time you scan an item, you’re beeping.
Connor Franta 06:00
To your right, yellow totes big plastic bins waiting to be filled with items picked off the robo shelves.
Chris Smalls 06:06
And we will put the items in these yellow totes and push it on to the conveyor belt. Send it down the conveyor belt to the pack department. Then you’re here and the conveyor belt runs 24/7 like a loud car engine running.
Connor Franta 06:25
Pick and pack glance over to your left and you’ll see a computer screen the computer screen that tracks which items you’re picking and how fast you’re doing it, a timer ticking up every second.
Chris Smalls 06:37
Which most people don’t like look at, they’ll cover the time up. A lot of these things come off trucks that are dusty. So they may have a funny smell like detergents. Or like maple syrup or something sometimes we don’t write the food, or expired cat food or something like that.
Connor Franta 07:02
And then there’s the people, the other canaries in this big noisy coal mine. Chris says it’s too loud to talk much in the warehouse. And you don’t really have time to do it anyway, with the rate tracking computers constantly, silently scolding you.
Chris Smalls 07:18
Being on station was pretty much solitary confinement, you can’t really leave your station because that time is counted against you. Whenever you’re not scanning items. No, it should be in tracked against you. We have days where you just you feel worse than others. I definitely had those moments where I had no second thoughts on even continuing to do what I’m doing. It’s like, you know, is it worth it? I’m so exhausted, so fed up, can’t take it anymore. And you have to find ways to give yourself a mental break. And that’s hard to do.
Connor Franta 07:53
It’s especially hard because Chris says it takes months of working to accrue enough paid time off to take even a single day of vacation.
Chris Smalls 08:02
Good luck doing that if you’re entry level, the rate that they turn over, you’re not their longevity to even enjoy a vacation or enjoy a couple of days off with pay.
Connor Franta 08:13
And even if you do make it far enough to earn that elusive vacation day, if you’re anything like Chris, you figure out pretty quickly that all that work is getting you nowhere fast.
Chris Smalls 08:23
I applied to be a salary manager 49 times and only was interviewed twice. I watched as you know my White counterparts with less experience less tenured, get promoted right over me even people that I trained personally get promoted right over me. And that’s what forces a lot of people to quit the job because it’s not because they can’t do the job is because the system designed by Amazon. It just doesn’t retain people.
Connor Franta 09:01
Honestly, Amazon warehouses might as well be burnout factories, because that’s what they do to their workers. And Amazon might be an extreme example, but I guarantee you there is some version of the same toxic dynamics in nearly every workplace in America. You don’t have to work for Amazon to be a canary deteriorating in a coal mine. We are all the canary. We are all burning out.
Christina Maslach 09:31
Burnout is not a disease, it’s not a medical condition. It shouldn’t be talked about as being you have to diagnose it and what are the symptoms and do we have an epidemic you know, it’s a very medical, you know, term, but that what that does is it makes it something inside somebody, so it’s a personal problem. Okay, what’s wrong with you? You’re sick with burnout and do you need to see a doctor and get meds and how about sleeping pills?
Connor Franta 09:58
Burnout is not a disorder. Burnout is actually a sign that your body is crushing it at being human. Think of it as proof that you are not a robot, kinda like the world’s shittiest CAPTCHA. So if you’re still wondering, what the heck is wrong with me, honey, you’re asking the wrong question.
Christina Maslach 10:16
The question is what is causing the stress? And can we do anything about it? The more we focus on how to fix the people, we’re ignoring what is really the source of the problem. But it’s also giving false hope to the sense that if I just hope enough, if I get enough sleep at night, and everybody laughs at that, because it’s too much work to get a full night’s sleep, eat the right things, meditate, go jogging, and they’re all fine. We have a huge self-care industry out there, and that can help people cope. But why is this happening? And could we do something different about it?
Connor Franta 10:54
Back in Chris’ Goldmine, I mean, the Amazon warehouse, he was barely coping, just managing to avoid suffocation in that toxic environment. until something happened that changed the stakes entirely.
Chris Smalls 11:10
We’re in the break room was watching this stuff real time. And this was before we knew what COVID really was. How’s it spreading. And I’m like looking around. And the CDC is saying, well, we shouldn’t be next to each other. And I’m like, oh, we’re all sitting shoulder to shoulder. And I’m looking around the warehouse. I’m like, there’s nothing here. There’s no PPE, there’s no sanitizers. There’s no guidelines. And Amazon was saying, oh, if you feel sick, you can stay home, no time will be counted against you. But obviously, people have bills to pay, that doesn’t pay your bills if you stay home. So they will come to work sick. And the domino effect in my department, I see workers every single day, they’re dizzy. their fatigue, you know, flu like symptoms, and something was just off, and I knew it. Hey, there’s something wrong here. We need to do something. I think this virus is already in the building.
Connor Franta 12:18
Chris was scared and stressed. And he says he felt the responsibility to all the people who worked with him. Amid the dire shortage of testing in those early days of the pandemic, people were falling ill one woman managed to confirm her COVID-19 diagnosis. But by then she had, of course been working in close quarters with hundreds of other people in the warehouse.
Chris Smalls 12:41
How can you contact trace that, you really can’t. So my suggestion was that we closed the building down for two weeks for the 14-day incubation period in the beginning. And they weren’t trying to hear that, of course, they didn’t want to hinder their operation. It was going to be business as usual. And they wanted me not to tell the employees that were directly underneath me, and I just couldn’t stand with that. And I said to heck with it. I’m going to do the protest and walk out on March 30th. And that’s exactly what we did.
Connor Franta 13:20
How that all played out for Chris, after the break.
Chris Smalls 13:36
I worked around a lot of great people. They were my extended family. I spent 40, 50, 60 hours a week with them. I see them more than I see my own children. For me to just quit and leave I know that it would affected a lot more people.
Connor Franta 14:35
On the day of the walkout. Chris Smalls got a phone call. It was a message from the very top of the Amazon food chain, delivered by a familiar voice.
Chris Smalls 14:43
I thought he was a friend of mine. So when he called me, I could tell you know his voice was real crackly, you know, he didn’t really want to do what he was doing.
Connor Franta 14:54
Chris had pointed out the poisons in the coal mine and he tried to make them better. Amazon responded as if the coal mine was just dandy. And actually Chris was the problem. They fired him, then in there,
Chris Smalls 15:07
You violated this policy. And because of that, we’re gonna have to terminate you. And I pretty much hung up.
Connor Franta 15:14
But Chris is a savvy guy, when he plan that walkout. Maybe it was a desperate measure. But he didn’t do it on a whim. No, this was a tried-and-true method that’s helped generations of workers demand a better coal mine. Literally. In fact, if you’ve ever looked around at your own personal coal mine, the one you work in and found yourself wondering, what the heck? Well, you might just find some answers about how you got there during this little trip back through time. Back to win the fight over working conditions began. Back to the industrial revolution.
Robert Bruno 16:07
It was not uncommon to find workers on the job 16 hours a day, and seven days a week.
Connor Franta 16:15
Robert Bruno is a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois. He’s got a knack for painting a pretty bleak picture of those industrial jobs that sprung up in the early 19th century.
Robert Bruno 16:26
There’s no such thing as a weekend, people are working in factories, and then working at these machines for very, very low wages. Work is very dangerous; hundreds of coal mine fires and collapses would occur every year.
Connor Franta 16:40
And why were those working conditions so nightmarish? Because they were designed by and for just one group of people, employers. And they were designed with only one purpose in mind to suck every last drop of value out of the workers.
Robert Bruno 17:01
If you think of them as a force of production, then you don’t have to be concerned about the humanity, you simply calculate how many hours of work can I get out of them. And if the law isn’t setting some sort of limitations that can give you a voice on those terms, then you have little choice.
Connor Franta 17:21
You really can’t get more downtrodden than those early day industrial workers. But in a true testament to the great resilience of the human spirit, those humble workers discovered a secret superpower.
Robert Bruno 17:34
The power of organizing collectivizing going to the boss has to insist on a certain set of working conditions. And if those who aren’t fulfilled then withholding your labor. So then we have a lot of very large and pretty violent strikes that cross into the early part of the 20th century.
Connor Franta 18:10
Producers. I think something’s off here. Okay, yeah, this is a show about burnout. So what saw this talk about violence strikes? I don’t know. It seems a little bit out of left field for me. I mean, one minute, we’re talking about meditating and the next we’re talking about getting physical. It’s just doesn’t track. Oh, okay. Okay. Okay, I get it. I get it. Yeah. I think I see what we’re trying to do here. Give me just a second. I’m gonna give it a try. Okay, take a seat. Close your eyes, and take a deep breath. It’s like this. You’re looking for wellness, honey, look no further because changing the coal mine is as wellness as it gets. The coal mine is the problem. And truthfully, the coal mine is everywhere. Nearly every single workplace in America has issues. The coal mines, all of them have to change or the Canaries will die. But my poor little canary, just a sweet, innocent yellow songbird. And the coal mine is huge. What are you supposed to do about it?
Robert Bruno 19:34
Short of laws that prevent certain kinds of discrimination. The employer has full dictatorial control over what you’re paid, how long you work, if you work, under what conditions you work,
Connor Franta 19:51
Unless, of course, the canaries team up.
Connor Franta 19:54
Nothing in American political history has been a stronger mechanism for empowering workers in the workplace, then joining a labor union. So the union’s role really, is to democratize the workplace.
Connor Franta 20:15
Now, come back to your mat, close your eyes, and repeat after me. Collective action is self-care. Collective action is wellness. Collective action is self-care. See, when we come together, we make each other stronger, we pool our individual little strengths like a group of workplace Avengers. Together, we can forge that superpower of collective action that has the strength to move coal mines, collective action as wellness, because it is the most effective way for us to ensure healthy working conditions where we can thrive. The collective action of our canary foremothers and canary forefathers transformed the workplace of the Industrial Revolution, bringing you the eight-hour work day, the weekend, time and a half basic health and safety standards, child labor laws. The labor movement was crushing it. At its peak in the 1950s, more than a third of American workers were represented by a union.
Connor Franta 21:36
The heyday would be roughly 1945 to 1977. A lot of economists historians have talked about those three decades as just an exceptional period in American history. And if you look at that, that’s when the American middle class really flourishes unionization rates go way up. The average auto worker steel worker sees significant increases in their daily wage.
Connor Franta 22:03
If you have a pulse. You probably already guessed that the good times for labor. Yeah, they didn’t last.
Connor Franta 22:10
If we’re looking for a pivot point, it’s probably that latter part of the 1970s. And it’s the ushering in of a more conservative pro capital, pro-business, political mindset, the dismantling of a lot of American manufacturing, the introduction of a lot of imported goods, a reduction of regulations on businesses.
Connor Franta 22:36
This was in the 1970s and 80s, which is come to think of it, right around the same time that burnout burst into the collective consciousness. Interesting.
Connor Franta 22:46
So there’s been a real shift of political power towards capital, towards the employer.
Connor Franta 22:53
This is when the labor movement really hit the skids. And as workers lost power to employers, labor unions wilted, laws changed, unions collapsed, and the ones that managed to hang on suffered in a culture of worker disempowerment. ever ask yourself why heavily unionized workers, like nurses or teachers still end up working in burnout factories these days? Well, labor laws have been strategically gutted over the decades.
Connor Franta 23:22
This wasn’t all just random, or accidental or happenstance. There really was a concerted effort being made by the American Chamber of Commerce and the largest businesses in this country to really put together a plan a playbook for protecting American capitalism and pushing back against progressive groups in this country who thought that there should be a greater distribution of that wealth.
Connor Franta 23:50
That playbook formed around a really powerful new idea, that government had no right to monkey around in the realm of business. Are you in any way a roadblock standing between a Corporation and its quest for money? Get out of the way.
Lenore Palladino 24:04
We drowned government in the bathtub? We’ll be well off.
Connor Franta 24:08
Lenore Palladino teaches Economics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And she says that drown the government idea kind of grew into a drown everyone else too while you’re at it idea. And it goes by inappropriately creepy name, shareholder primacy.
Lenore Palladino 24:24
Shareholder primacy is this idea that the whole purpose of a corporation’s activity is to make money for shareholders to make shareholders as rich as possible.
Connor Franta 24:35
If you’re one of those people who shuts down when an economist starts to use economist words, this aside is for you. A shareholder is someone who invest money in a company in order to make more money. Primacy means you’re the most important, numero uno, top dog, number one. The big problem with this idea is that shareholders are not the only ones with skin in the game.
Lenore Palladino 25:03
We think of the workers and we think of ourselves as customers. And both of these groups have very important roles to play in terms of either producing or buying what corporations sell.
Connor Franta 25:15
In fact, we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that all of society has a stake in it. No corporation is an island. I mean, the holding planet is impacted by corporate activities. And yet..
Lenore Palladino 25:29
The idea of shareholder primacy says that what corporate leaders should be thinking about every day is how to raise stock prices.
Connor Franta 25:38
Let’s say you’re a corporation that makes comfy socks, shareholder primacy steps in and says, what? You think you make comfy socks? That’s adorable. But no, no, no, no, no, no. The only reason you keep the lights on around here is to make money for your investors. Comfy socks, who these people think they are. When you look at it that way, the product hardly matters, the customer doesn’t really matter. And your workers definitely don’t matter. So maybe your comfy socks get a little less comfy. Because comfy costs you money. Maybe you lean on your workers a little harder, ask them to do more with less, so you don’t have to pay for another warm body. Maybe you skimp on health and safety. That sure isn’t making you any money. And the doctrine of shareholder primacy gives you moral and legal cover to do all of that.
Lenore Palladino 26:35
It was a way for the shareholding class to hold on to its wealth and power. So shareholder primacy operates as a justification or dare we say an excuse for corporate leaders to really squeeze their employees as much as possible and to not recognize where corporate value actually comes from, which is the workforce.
Connor Franta 26:59
The more importance we lavish on share price, the less concern we have for the coal mine and the canaries inside it.
Lenore Palladino 27:06
And it’s because labor is seen as just a cost. If you increase the cost of labor, you’re leaving less profits available to be paid out to shareholders. That’s just the math.
Connor Franta 27:20
It’s a little sad, if you think about it. In less than 100 years, we’ve lost a lot of the ground those first brave canaries fought so hard for, in some ways, we’re back where we started, canaries burning out in a toxic coal mine. Here’s the silver lining. Now, in 2022, we’re older, and we’re wiser. We’ve studied this thing. And we now know there’s a different and better way to build the coal mine.
Connor Franta 27:49
There are a number of very important factors that contribute to a job that contributes to meaningful life that builds strong social relationships with other workers and helps essentially build the world.
Connor Franta 28:07
That’s labor Professor Robert Bruno again. He and other researchers have dissected what they call high quality jobs at the project for middle class renewal, a lab at the University of Illinois. He’s made a science out of building a better coal mine. And he says the best coal mines all have a few things in common.
Connor Franta 28:26
I need flexibility. I need a stable schedule. I need to be paid a fair wage, employer paid health care benefits, employer paid retirement benefits, opportunities for skill development, safe working conditions, a workplace where there’s not discrimination, and to have voice, to have collective agency. And that’s a big one right to have a say in the quality of that work and way that work is done.
Connor Franta 28:58
Now that’s a coal mine I could settle down in. And there’s a handful of ways to get there. Including that old and dusty yet tried and true when.
Connor Franta 29:16
Workers who are the most vulnerable benefit the most from unions, so I’m talking about low wage workers, workers who are in positions historically described as less than high skill. I’m talking about women, people of color, non-English speaking workers.
Connor Franta 29:37
Look, unionization is never going to be a silver bullet that solves everything. But it is one tool in the giant toolbox of life, and one with a proven track record of empowering workers. And that’s why Chris Smalls couldn’t just walk away after he was fired from Amazon. He thought about his coworkers still stuck in the toxic coal mine and he thought about his future, what is next coal mine be any better? He thought he can make a difference.
Chris Smalls 30:04
And I was like, okay, all right. This is obviously bigger than me. But this is something that they just can’t get away with. Ironically, they also said to make me to face the whole unionizing efforts against Amazon. So I said, okay, that’s a good idea.
Connor Franta 30:24
Wait, Chris’s good idea was to go up against Amazon dot freakin com. I mean, Jeff Bezos is only the second wealthiest man in the world shouldn’t be too hard to take them down. After the break, we’ll hear how that panned out. And we’ll turn it around and demand some answers from America’s employers.
Connor Franta 31:05
Just a couple of months ago in March of 2022, Chris’s dream of an Amazon labor union was put to the ultimate test. The time had come for a vote on a simple yes or no ballot, the warehouse workers made their stand. If most voted yes, to form a union, the law would require Amazon to recognize it and work with it to hammer out a contract. In the time since Chris was fired in March of 2020, conditions in a Staten Island warehouse and other Amazon warehouses have not changed. The warehouse floor is still hot and noisy picking is still tracked down to the second, Amazon employees have gotten sick with COVID 19. Some have died, and many more have been fired. But all the while Amazon share price has been doing just fine. In fact, it’s been going bananas between March of 2020 when Chris was fired, and March of 2022, when the union vote went down, the price of Amazon stock ballooned from $1,900 to nearly $3,000 per share. So Amazon must be doing it right. Right? Wrong. Corporate America, there’s a better way.
Lenore Palladino 32:30
There is now what we call a benefit corporation or a public benefit corporation where you can as a founder say, yes, we want to have a positive public benefit.
Connor Franta 32:43
That’s economist Lenore Palladino again. Public benefit corporations are one way to say no shareholder primacy, my company’s sole purpose isn’t to make my investors wealthier. Although that could be a side benefit. My company’s primary purpose is bringing affordable, sustainably sourced and ethically manufactured comfy socks to the freezing toes of the world with a carbon negative impact.
Lenore Palladino 33:09
You’re committing to essentially not what we call on economics, create externalities. So we’re not going to push the costs, the negative parts of our production process out onto society, we’re going to be responsible.
Connor Franta 33:25
That includes being responsible to your workers. But then, and this is key, you have to follow through.
Lenore Palladino 33:33
I think, business leaders who want their businesses to be around for a while they want to have a well-functioning society for you know, more than the next 10 years. It should be clear at this point that you actually need to have a positive impact on society in a sort of minimal sense of not creating further harm, if you want to have there be a next generation of customers. But unfortunately, that’s not the requirement for most businesses, and so people are extremely short sighted.
Connor Franta 34:09
Public Benefit corporations are a great first step. But the law doesn’t have much teeth to enforce the public benefit. So even the best-intentioned entrepreneurs struggle to keep the right priorities front and center.
Chris Mark 34:23
How can we actually create a system to institute social responsibility in the DNA of the company?
Connor Franta 34:32
Chris Mark was a professor at Cambridge Judge Business School. He says there is a relatively new type of business that does just that. Enter the B-Corp.
Chris Mark 34:43
A B-Corp is a company who is certified for its environmental social governance performance.
Connor Franta 34:51
B-corps are companies that pass a rigorous certification process to prove they meet the highest social and environmental standards, including standards around worker welfare, in contrast to businesses beholden to shareholder primacy, B corpse are required to consider what’s best for everyone and everything they affect, including customers, suppliers, the environment and you know it, their workers. To get this prestigious certification, a company has to pass a really hard test. The questions are simple, but getting them right, that’s the tough part. How well do you pay your workers? How much paid time off? Do they get? How do you support their professional development?
Chris Mark 35:35
Is there you know, extended parental leave? Health benefits is an obvious one that, you know, sad that many cases, you know, they have to actually get points for that, a number of issues around diversity assessment of any pay gaps based on gender or race.
Connor Franta 35:55
And here’s a good one, what portion of your company is employee owned. In fact, a lot of the worker benefits that the B Corp process encourages are the exact same ones that labor unions have spent years fighting for double. In fact, supporting worker unionization is actually on the B Corp test. Unions may not be a silver bullet, but combine them with B Corp standards, and that projectile is starting to look pretty damn shiny. So why would a business owner preemptively and voluntarily commit themselves to basically a labor union like agenda?
Chris Mark 36:36
Companies with purpose and B corps win in the war for talent? One of the people I talked to I remember, she was telling me that a lot of her peers were saying, you know, why this B Corp thing? Why do you want to be B Corp. And she says, because I really don’t have to have an HR department. No one ever leaves. And if I need to hire people, there’s a huge line of them outside the door.
Connor Franta 37:01
There are roughly 5000 B corps worldwide, and in nearly every industry imaginable, from food and beverage, to financial services, pet products to agriculture, health care, to waste management, if you’re a for profit business, this could be you. Well, there are a few exceptions, you have to be able to walk the walk, and not every company is up to that task.
Chris Mark 37:25
I mean, in some ways, I think Amazon is almost the anti B Corp. You know, it’s a company that thrives on the exploitation of societies and workers and the environment.
Connor Franta 37:38
Or if your jam is something like coal, tobacco or firearms, it ain’t gonna happen. Automatic disqualification. But if you don’t work in one of the few disqualifying industries, your B Corp can be as small as a single sole proprietor, or as big as a huge multinational corporation. So see corporate America, you have options, become a public benefit corporation, or naked official with a full-on B Corp certification. Now, I’ve been singling out corporate America this whole time. That’s not quite fair, is it? Because there are all kinds of workplaces out there, nonprofits, government offices, education, startups, even the good old mom and pop shop. And every single one of these workplaces is facing massive pressure to perform to somebody’s impossibly high standard. So if you’re in corporate America, the pressure is probably profits and share prices. But if you’re a teacher, that pressure might be test scores. Or if you’re in the nonprofit world, maybe it’s some lofty mission you’re responsible for, no matter the shape of your coal mine. There’s a common thread among all modern workplaces. The pressure to do more, with less. So how do you hold yourself accountable when you’re facing those pressures? How do you know you’re doing it right? As a workplace leader? How do you know you’re keeping it real? Use the simple trick. Close your eyes and think about your workers. Are you seeing people bubbling over with humanity, people with hopes and dreams and interests and desires that are separate from your corporate agenda? Are you seeing individuals? Do you know their names? Do you know their kids names? Or are you seeing faceless deployable resources? A number on a spreadsheet? That is just a cost against your bottom line? If that last exercise is giving you trouble, oh boy, do I have the tool for you. It’s called mindful leadership. And Janice Martorano says mindful corporate leadership can center humanity in the context of the corporate world.
Organizations don’t really exist except as a piece of paper in its state of incorporation.
Connor Franta 40:09
Janice is the executive director of the Institute for mindful leadership. And if you ask her what mindful corporate leadership is, she starts by deconstructing the entire corporation.
What we’re really talking about when we talk about organizations, are leaders.
Connor Franta 40:25
And then she goes on to explode the very idea of leadership.
Let’s start by acknowledging that every single person is a leader. Leadership is not defined by titles, or org charts, or how big your budget is, or how many people you manage. Leadership is all about influence at its core. And every single person, for better or worse, has an influence. Everything we say or choose not to say, everything we do or choose not to do has an influence. So one way to think about mindful leadership is about strengthening each person’s ability to more often influence for better and less often influence for worse.
Connor Franta 41:19
She says mindful leadership is a little bit subtle, it might not look very different at first glance, but it all unfolds in the experience, for example, a mindful meeting.
First thing, let’s be selective about who’s sitting around the table. Not everybody in there, brother, but who needs to be there. Let’s set up a forum that allows every single person to have a question in advance, and to know that they’re going to be invited to share that. Let’s find a way of sharing that isn’t a free for all, that people don’t have to feel like I better speak really quickly. Because if I don’t get it out fast, somebody’s going to interrupt and I never get to say what I wanted to say, taking purposeful pauses within the meeting, stop at halfway through to take a minute to reflect on what have I heard, what questions do I still have?
Connor Franta 42:15
Perhaps the most obvious difference between annual jury work meeting and a mindful meeting is the deliberate focus. Multitasking has no place at this conference table.
No one uses a phone. No one uses a laptop. No one else is looking or listening to anything else. But the other speakers sitting around the table.
Connor Franta 42:37
It’s not just hating on devices. There’s a really, really important intention behind this.
When we are multitasking, we are failing to connect. And we talk about what burns people out. Isolation is certainly a big part of it. And when we are not present for people, it is felt. And the opposite is true. When we’re fully present for someone, they can feel our connection, whether it’s zoom or in person. And when we’re not, it feels a lot like disrespect. When we talk about mindful communication, we talk about mindful meetings. What we’re really in large part talking about is connecting. We need to feel that connection.
Connor Franta 43:23
Disrespect is the first step on the road to dehumanization, exploitation, squeezing, poisoning the Canaries connection is the first step back. Imagine for a moment, a world where Jeff Bezos sits down with Chris Smalls. He turns off his phone and listens with an open, curious ear, fully present for his employee. Imagine a world where the world’s second richest man relates to his workers as people first, the coal mine is already starting to look a little bit better to me, or I don’t know. Maybe you’re a titan of industry type. And maybe this deep connection thing sounds a little bit too touchy feely for you. But employers are going to need to step it up and do something and quickly, because I don’t know if you’ve seen the news lately, but the canaries have been getting the hell out.
Eric Langshur 44:20
I love the great resignation. I love it.
Connor Franta 44:23
Eric Langshur is an author, serial entrepreneur, Chairman of Mindful and a huge advocate for values-based entrepreneurship. He has decades of experience as a practitioner of mindfulness. And he’s developed a program to train other business leaders in science backed techniques to bring mindfulness into their life and work.
Eric Langshur 44:42
I think about it as the great reinvention. I think it’s amazing that that this mobility exists, if you’re not working in your zone of genius, and on purpose. Well, let’s get clear about that. And we have programs to help People understand their purpose and what their zone of genius is. And that comes at a cost of people leaving to work in the right role. That’s fantastic. But as an employer, it’s been brutal.
Connor Franta 45:18
Yeah, I’d say. So, last year and 2021 47 point 8 million workers quit their jobs, the highest average on record, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So when I had the chance to sit down with Eric, I put his feet to the fire on some of these questions. How do you personally think business leaders should avoid that trap of like still being able to, obviously have a profitable business? Of course, that’s not a bad thing. But having employees that are happy and healthy will only benefit you in the long run? You can have both in a way, can you have both that away?
Eric Langshur 45:57
Well, for sure, you can have both, you know, that’s, that’s what I’m up to in the world is demonstrating that you can have both and that it makes for good business. We just believe that our employees are a, a stakeholder that matters. I like to think that most everybody wakes up every day, and thinks about what we can do to lead a good life. And when we bring that to the workplace, as leaders, part of leading a good life is helping and supporting the people around us when we’re in a position to influence things.
Connor Franta 46:33
He likes to make the case that bringing mindfulness into the workplace, into the very ethos of the corporate fabric can make the coal mine healthier, organically.
Eric Langshur 46:42
Culture is going to happen, whether it was purposely built or by accident. And so that starts with compensation and starts with health benefits. It starts with retirement planning, flexibility on where people work, and how people work. And you know, supporting working moms, especially during the pandemic, just mind blowing to me, that one group and the pressures that they’ve had to endure, when we show up at work, it’s a shared contract. You we want to show up and bring our best, and bring our energies and think about how much of our life energy we dedicate to our work. So that we can show up and be ready and focused and energized. And the other side of the contract is we as employers have a responsibility to create an environment that can bring out the best in people and help people identify or develop the skills to be at our best. It’s an imperative. And we have an imperative to take care of each other. Any aggregation of humans, we have a responsibility to each other, to help lift the health and well-being of our people. And oh, by the way, that is just great business.
Connor Franta 48:18
Here’s the beginning and the end of it corporate America, you have a choice to make. Are you going to take seriously that responsibility to lift up your people? It’s a simple yes or no question. No gray areas or hemming or hawing. Just a simple yes or no? Yes. But I can tell you that whichever choice you make, the canaries in the coal mines know the people in the workforce are making that decision for themselves. This is what lifting each other up sounds like. Nearly two years to the day after Chris Smalls was fired from his job at Amazon. He and everyone he works with won a historic victory. The warehouse won the right to form a union. Other Amazon warehouses across the country are following suit. And Chris. Well Chris has a new job.
Chris Smalls 49:30
I am the current president of the Amazon labor union.
Connor Franta 49:34
Damn Chris, way to go. And in this particular moment in history, more and more workers are throwing their hats in with unionization from baristas to architects, librarians, to journalists, software engineers to grad students and everything in between and beyond interest in unionization is on the upswing. And why? Because workplace leaders haven’t been taking care of their people. So go ahead, vote with your feet, jump ship, hit the road depart for greener pastures split. Or stay where you are organized with your fellow canaries and work on making it better there. But wherever you end up, I hate to break it to you. Burnout is bigger than your workplace, bigger than your current employer. And it’s bigger than your next employer. There’s a whole world out there influencing you and your relationship to work too.
Connor Franta 50:56
Burnout is a production of Lemonada and Mindful. Rae Solomon, Rachel Lightner and Claire Jones produced this episode with help from Kristen Lepore. Isaura Aceves is our associate producer. Mixing and Sound Design by Rachel Lightner. Music is by Hannis Brown, additional music by APM. Melinda Wright is our story consultant. Our VP of narrative content is Jackie Danziger. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Special shoutouts, to therapists, all the amazing therapists of the world you are doing God’s work. You can find Lemonada on all social platforms at @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me Connor Franta at @ConnorFranta across all social platforms. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts. Burnout is created in collaboration with mindful.org. Mindful is a public benefit organization dedicated to sharing the gifts of mindfulness through content, training, courses, and coaching. Visit www.mindful.org/burnout to find a curated collection of Mindfulness Based meditations courses and resources to help you prevent and work through burnout in your life and work. I’m Connor Franta. See you next week.