A simplified workplace image

Oh, what a w̶o̶n̶d̶e̶r̶f̶u̶l̶ complex world (Louis Armstrong)

September 3, 2021

Imagine it’s January 2020. You are working in a medium-sized business that sells products across the Asia-Pacific region. Things have been going well, and your company is about to roll out a new item range. You start to hear from colleagues and news agencies about a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, and on January 4, the WHO confirms the cause of these is being investigated. Just 5 days later it is confirmed that the illnesses are due to a novel coronavirus and by the 10th of January WHO has disseminated arange of guidelines and documents to assist countries in how to manage the new disease (https://www.who.int/news/item/27-04-2020-who-timeline---covid-19).

From then on there are frequent and unpredictable changes, large amounts of uncertainty, complex and vast amounts of information to absorb and react to and ambiguity from seemingly contradicting actions and information. You have colleagues stranded overseas,supplier issues due to manufacturing being halted, confusion and shock setting in and no previous experience with such a situation. You hear you may be stood down but are not sure, communication from leadership is unclear and several friends have lost their jobs.

Feeling stressed yet?

The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of what has been termed the ‘VUCA world’, and one that has created a great deal of challenge for both leaders and employees (not to mention school kids and pretty much everyone in the world!).  Coined in 1987 as a way of trying to understand the global changes and challenges following the Cold War, VUCA is a way to understand the major upheaval in the way we live our lives due to the rapid pace of technological and social change.

VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty,Complexity and Ambiguity, all of which – much like Nigel Tufnell’s amplifier from Spinal Tap - have been dialled ‘up to 11’ during the pandemic, and all of which can lead to increased levels of stress and lower levels of wellbeing withing organisations (Bennetand Lemoine, 2014; Mascarenhas, year;).

But what is stress, and what is wellbeing? These terms are frequently mentioned in workplace settings in relation to mental health,however are rarely defined. Stress can be thought of as the balance between the demands of a situation and the resources you have available to deal with it. Suppose I told you that you were going to be singing the national anthem at the AFL Grand Final this year. How would you feel about that? The chances are that if you are not a professional singer, you would you be very stressed and nervous about this prospect. This is because the demands of the situation (i.e., singing at a large -scale event with millions watching on TV)are likely to outweigh your resources (i.e., singing skills).

However; suppose you had spent the last 30 years training, performing and singing in front of large audiences. While you may experience some normal nerves, you would be unlikely to feel overwhelmed and unduly stressed because you know that you have adequate resources to meet thetask at hand. The challenge here though, is that if you became too complacent and overconfident you might risk ‘underperforming’ due to a failure to take the demand seriously enough. This relationship between stress and performance is shown below:

First published by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, the ‘Inverted-UTheory’ as it is known has stood the test of time and indicates that not all stress is bad; in fact, having just the right amount of demand/resource tension creates peak performance, while having too many demands or too few resources can impair performance.

The impacts of long-term (i.e., ‘chronic’) stress on wellbeing are well and truly documented, and can include disturbances to a number of bodily systems such as digestive, immune, sleep and cardiovascular, and for some can cause headaches,irritability and/or lowered moods (National Institute of Mental Health).

But what does ‘wellbeing’ actually mean?

As the picture shows, wellness encompasses more than simply the absence of illness. Although it includes those with serious physical ormental health problems, it also acknowledges that wellbeing is more than just not being sick. Wellbeing can therefore be defined as a state in “which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruit fully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” (WHO).

So what can we do to cope with a VUCA world, manage stress and enhance wellbeing? One approach that cuts across all of these issues is workplace simplification. There are several ways in which applying the principles of simplification (check this blog) can assist.

Firstly, the way in which our work is designed can assist incoping with a VUCA world. By reducing complexity, increasing agility, having clear and effective communication practices and being flexible, workplaces can increase their ability to adapt and minimise the impacts of a VUCA world. While an organisation cannot control its external environment, it can control its own structure and processes to minimise the impacts.

Secondly, because simplification is the opposite of complexity, it can reduce demands (i.e., by streamlining inefficient processes) and enhance resources (by freeing up time to focus on core business or other important tasks). For more on this see (elephant in the room blog). This should reduce unhelpful stress and assist with reaching peak performance (the top part of the ‘inverted U’).

Thirdly, it follows that if we are able to adapt better and have adequate resources to deal with demands, our stress will be lower and we will have better wellbeing; in other words, we will be moving towards the right-handside of the continuum shown in the wellbeing diagram. In fact, because wellbeing is not only the absence of difficulties, simplification can also lead to flourishing and thriving for individuals who may not be unduly stressed (i.e.,distressed) and therefore should not only be thought of an intervention to assist those who are struggling, but also to enhance and optimise wellbeing at work.  

But what about stress management programs – surely these are the best way to help people cope at work? While it is true that individual level interventions do have a role to play, the evidence continues to build and point towards workplace factors – how we do our work matters, and simplification is a powerful and effective way to address workplace issues related to stress and wellbeing from a systemic perspective, rather than expecting the individual to find a way to deal with a complex and less than optimal work design.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to get back to singing practise – who knows, maybe one day the AFL will come calling!


1. Bennett, N., &Lemoine, J. (2014). What a Difference a Word Makes: Understanding Threats toPerformance in a VUCA World. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2406676

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