Updated: Jun 14
Two of the major challenges our society are currently encountering are chronic levels of poor health and burnout.
Nobody knows exactly how much these issues are costing us. Deloitte recently suggested that mental health alone is costing UK employers up to £56bn a year. MetLife UK recently found that over 10 million workers a year take sick days due to burnout.
Most of us know this is a serious issue because we have experienced it ourselves, or been close to others that have.
We can take solace in the fact that poor physical health, poor mental health and burnout is so common.
Because it demonstrates to us that it is not an individual problem. It is not purely the result of us making bad choices but a society-wide problem caused by the environment in which we live. The good news here is that as well as working on ourselves, we can make significant progress by working on our environment.
As Alexander Den Heijer states in his book 'Nothing you don't already know':
"When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower."
So where does school step into this picture? What does school have to do with adult health and burnout levels?
Firstly it's important to understand that we humans are creatures of habit. We form a lot of our habits and beliefs early in our childhood. We go to school for roughly 12 years from the ages of 4 to 16 (18 now but for many of us 16 was the age at which we could finish). So the systems we follow throughout our early lives at school impact how we approach life later on.
There are two major factors of our schooling system that I believe are forming behaviours leading to poor health and burnout later in adult life. The second factor I will discuss is the lack of PE and how the small amount of PE that children do is focused on sports. I've held this view for a long time. But the first factor is something that I only started to consider recently - Homework.
Factor 1 - Homework
I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to explore training on health, engagement and performance with thousands of people.
I was recently going through some time management training with a group of managers from a UK hotel chain discussing the principle of Parkinson's Law. Parkinson's Law is, in simple terms, the principle that a task expands to fill that time that we allow it.
It's an important principle to understand when exploring burnout because it highlights that the reason many of us take work home is that we mentally allow that time - and that's not good! There have been lots of studies around the world, and there is currently one going on in the UK that proves or aims to prove that when we allow less time for work, our productivity and therefore results improve... . This concept deserves its own post. But back to school. When sharing this concept with course participants I highlight that often the burden of responsibility for burnout actually falls at the employee's feet because they are allowing themselves to take work home. It was at this point recently that one of the course participants (who is guilty of taking work home) made a very interesting point:
"You know, I think we learn this behaviour at school. I have a five-year-old daughter, and at five years old she regularly brings back homework... I don't think a five-year-old should be coming home from school and doing more work, they should be having fun, moving and playing".
A fascinating insight from a senior level manager and father of a young child. I do not doubt that there are good arguments for children having homework but we need to consider the ramifications later on in life. Do the advantages (of which I'm sure there are many arguments for) outweigh the negatives? Does homework embedding in our children from a young age the subconscious message of 'to be successful in life you must take your work home with you?
I'd like to highlight at this point that I'm not attempting to place any burden at the feet of the wonderful teachers we are lucky enough to have in this country. I've had the privilege of working with many schools and teachers over the years. The vast majority of which I have always found to be passionate about the development of children through education.
The issues we face do not lie with teachers but the systems in which they are placed into and have to follow.
The more cynical part of me considers the idea that the schooling system was originally designed to create masses of workers that would provide maximum output. Our economy used to be largely fuelled by mass labour. When this is the case it makes sense that the education system should instil a 'hard work at all costs' mindset into children.
We are very fortunate in the UK to have moved past the mass labour economy. Many other countries are still heavily invested in the human labour market. A brief internet search exposes us to the quality of work and life people in these countries have to put up with. Our economy now requires innovative, creative, collaborative and passionate people. This cannot be achieved through the aforementioned 'hard work at all costs' mindset. For people to develop these qualities, they need to be healthy and happy. They need to work sustainably. Giving young children homework and the subconscious lessons accompanied with homework is not good for children or society. This leads me to my second issue with the schooling system.
2 - The Lack of Physical Education
On average a child will spend 33 hours a week at school. 6 hours of that will be break times bringing the total study time to 27 hours. On average children do two hours of Physical Exercise at school a week.
Homework volume is age-dependent, as previously discussed we know that children as young as five years old are receiving homework. According to the school run, a study found that British pupils do an average of 4.9 hours a week of homework.
That tells us that the average child in the UK:
- Spends 38 hours at school or on school work
- Spends 32 hours studying (after breaks)
- Is allotted 2 hours (6.2%) of that study time to move and learn about physical health
When we teach our children for 13 years, from the ages of 5-18 that:
- Success in life is achieved by working 38 hours a week
- That work should be done at home as well as work
- That health is only important enough to account for 6.2% of that time
Is it surprising that the majority of adults in the UK go on to struggle with their health?
Is it surprising that 60% of our entire population is overweight or obese?
Is it surprising that almost one-third of our population lives with musculoskeletal pain (many of which are caused by the bad posture that started to develop at school)?
Is it surprising that in 2017 the NHS accumulated £0.8bn (probably more) responding to poor health developed through sedentary lifestyles?
It's virtually impossible to go on the internet or any social media platform today and not be exposed to the message that exercise is one of the most important things you can do to improve your physical and mental health (usually presented to us by someone in great shape). I'd be willing to bet that there are very few people in the UK that are genuinely unaware of this. So why, as a nation are we generally awful at actually engaging in it regularly?
Whenever I ask participants on a course this question I'm sure you can guess what the main reason people provide is... Time.
But if we're honest with ourselves (and this is my initially unpopular thought when I first share it) the time excuse is bull. I'll often make this point by asking the question "If a doctor told you today that unless start exercising 30-60 minutes a day you'll die next week, would you be able to find the time?". Very rarely is the answer no. Again, if time really were the genuine issue that limits our nation's ability to engage in enough physical activity, then we would have seen the health of our nation transformed during the recent COVID pandemic and the extra time that was brought to the masses (sorry to those of you who it wasn't!). But it didn't.
If we're more honest and take a deeper look at the issue, the reason we don't move enough is that we spent the 12-15 years of our childhood learning not to. We spent 12-15 years of our childhoods being subconsciously taught that spending time on our health is a low-value activity that won't help us be successful in life. It's only worth the investment of 6.2% of a week. To further add insult to injury, that 6.2% you did spend on being active was through the medium of sport. So if you're not particularly gifted with athleticism or don't find a natural enjoyment in competition, you formed the belief from a young that the physical activity thing is bad, that it's embarrassing, that you're not good at it and that it's not for you. There is so much more to being active and healthy than sports and 'fitness'. Much of the value in the workshops I share with people is in helping them see through these beliefs they formed in their childhood.
Add to this that our jobs have and will continue to be increasingly sedentary and it's easy to understand why we face the issues that we do.
If we want our children to flourish into healthy happy people that contribute to society in meaningful ways we need to support them. We need to help them develop into adolescence with their health at the top of their priority lists. We need to help them develop confidence in their ability to support their health. I don't think the schooling system alone is currently doing this.
It is not my intention with this post to slam schools or teachers. It's also not my intention to instil worry in the minds of parents.
I believe that those of us who can read this post live in an incredible time. Yes, we have many challenges as humanity always has and always will, but, we have more freedom and opportunity available to us than ever before in human history. The first and most fundamental step required to create psychological well-being is what is referred to as mindfulness. Common to popular belief, this doesn't mean emptying the mind of thoughts but to become aware of our minds. The same is true with all challenges, the first step we must take in addressing them is to become aware of them. My intention behind this post is to summon thought to the potential challenges our current schooling system might create for us and our children. By becoming aware of this we raise our ability to do something about it and move things in a better direction.
Changing the education system isn't easy. As Elon Musk stated:
"It's easier to land a man on Mars than to change the school system"
To which I would likely agree but respond with another famous quote:
'The most difficult things are the ones most worth doing".
When we step back from the complexities of life we realise that we are but visitors on this planet and that our time here is short. Considering this can we argue that there is anything more important for us and our children than taking care of our health, and our happiness? I expect for the majority the answer is no.
We mustn't become despondent in response to the challenge that is improving our education system. We should view it as a challenge worth pursuing.
Think about the beliefs you might have formed in your earlier life around health and work ethic. Are they working for you now? What can you do to change them?
Think about the beliefs and attitudes you want your children to form around health and worth ethics. How can you support them in this? How can you help them instil good habits? How can you help them create a healthy attitude towards work and life?
Business owners and team leaders, think about the beliefs your employees might hold around health and work ethic. Think about the behaviours you are displaying to your teams around health and work ethic. What can you do nurture a culture that prioritises health and good work ethic?
And most importantly, don't be afraid to stand up for and make noise about what you believe in. Our society subconsciously installs in us a fear to speak up for what we believe in or question authority. If we don't develop the confidence to speak up and share our opinions, things don't change and we feel unfulfilled.
We have to continue shifting towards a culture that prioritises health, happiness and meaning. This starts at school but is continued into our adult and working lives. We are all responsible for it. The more we make it a priority in our own lives, in our schools and in our businesses, the more we will prosper as individuals, as schools, as teams, as businesses and as a society.