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From Tree to Shining Tree: Wellbeing Lessons from the Forest

May 02, 2019

On one of my favorite podcasts, called Radiolab, I learned something interesting about forests that got me thinking about the relationship between humans and the systems in which they live and work.

Within the soil under a forest of trees, there lies an incredibly interconnected network, the components of which work together in an awe-inspiring and mostly invisible way to maintain the forest ecosystem. While we all know that tree roots are essential to the survival of the forest, when you hear the details of what’s really happening in and between the tree roots, things get a little crazy.

Here’s my non-scientist super-condensed version of the facts as described in this podcast (and then I promise to tell you what this has to do with well-being):

Wrapped around and woven between the roots of the trees are white thread-like tubes which can only be seen with a magnifying glass. These tubes are actually fungi and they are so teeny there can be up to seven miles of threaded fungi in a pinch of soil. (Yes, you read that correctly.) This “fungal freeway” provides a variety of essential services for the trees. First and foremost, the fungi are what actually get the minerals and nutrients from the soil into the tree roots. Strangely enough, it turns out that roots are not actually very good at getting what they need from the soil so the fungi do it for them.

The fungi not only deliver food and water to the tree roots they belong to, they also serve as a vehicle for trees to loan each other sugar when one tree is in need and another has excess. And finally, most amazingly, the fungal freeway serves as a communication network of sorts, through which trees can send information to other trees that will help them survive. For example, if a tree is under attack by a mass of beetles that are harming it, it will send a chemical notification to trees in the surrounding area about what’s happening so those other trees can start producing chemicals that taste bad to beetles, thereby protecting themselves from similar attack.

The tree-fungi relationship works in reverse as well because the trees also have something that fungi need to survive: sugar. Scientists estimate that trees give somewhere between 20% - 80% of their sugar to the fungi. Apparently, this is because fungi need sugar to build up their bodies - but they can’t produce the sugar themselves. Sometimes a tree will “loan” fungi the sugar it needs and then the fungi will give some back when the tree needs it.

So, essentially – and this is the point - trees and fungi work together collaboratively because they each can flourish only when the other is doing their part. They are inextricably interconnected and function at their best when working toward a common goal – a thriving ecosystem where each component gets what it needs and also serves the others.

Organizations as Ecosystems

As I learned about this amazing and mostly hidden “underground network where deals are made and lives are saved (and lost) in a complex web of friendships, rivalries, and business relations” (to quote the podcast’s narrator), I couldn’t help but see the connection to the well-being industry. If you’ve been paying attention to any of the recent work on the fusion approach to organizational and employee well-being, you might already see the relevance and beauty of this tree-fungi story. Imagine the forest ecosystem as the organization, the trees as the individuals within that organization, and the fungi as all the often-hidden stuff that happens within and between employees in an organization (communication, information sharing, energy transfer, etc.) and you can probably start to connect the dots on where I’m going with this.

The prevailing Mechanistic worldview, which has dominated Western culture and science for centuries, seeks to understand humans and organizations as analogous to machines which can best be “fixed” by reducing each entity to its smallest component part.  This pervasive but inaccurate worldview has informed organizational and well-being efforts in a way that has created the current approach to wellness which is rightly being questioned. However, scientific advancements from the 20th and 21st century paint a dramatically different picture of reality – one in which humans and organizations function in a way that is more similar to natural ecosystems than machines. Many important and previously unrecognized truths have emerged from relatively recent studies in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, chaos theory, and quantum physics that are (or should be) changing the way we approach well-being both at the organizational and individual levels. (For more on this, read the book How to Build a Thriving Culture at Work, by Rosie Ward and Jon Robison).

Among other things, these “new” sciences teach us that:

  • The universe and everything in it is more accurately understood not as an entity made up of things, but as an entity made up of relationships between things
  • All the components are interconnected and influencing each other - often in ways we can’t see or easily quantify
  • Every entity and every component of each entity has a purpose that it can only fulfill when it’s functioning in relationship with other components and as part of a meaningful whole
  • This applies to virtually all entities in the universe – everything from fungi and trees to humans and the organizations we create and work in.

What does this mean for individual and organizational wellbeing efforts?

Well, lots of things, really.

Traditionally, organizations have deployed employee well-being initiatives in order to “help” employees improve their health so they can improve the productivity and profitability of the organization. In this conventional model, it is assumed that employees are solely responsible for and can control of all aspects of their health on their own, given the right information and incentives. “Health” is boiled down to a set of risk factors that are often independently quantified, categorized, and addressed with targeted interventions. Very little attention is paid to the effect that the organization itself may be having on the individuals, or how relationships between members of the organizations are helpful or hurtful to well-being, or the relationship between physical health and other important influences such as genetics, beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, emotions, other people, purpose, spirituality, work experience, etc.

These foundational assumptions and the practices they foster must change. In order to sustain relevance, the wellbeing industry must adapt and respond to these “new” sciences and redefine its understanding of the human experience, health and illness, behavior change, and the relationships between organizations and their employees. While there are many ways these changes will (hopefully) manifest, I’ll suggest two here that have to do with the lessons learned from the forest ecosystem about relationships, interconnectedness, and flourishing.

 

Focus on the health of the system first. Is the organization guided by a clearly articulated purpose (beyond profit) and set of core values that truly guide decision-making? Are the formal leaders of the company working cohesively? Is there trust, mutual respect, and open communication between leaders and the team members they lead? Is there a sense of community, shared purpose, and support among colleagues? Do the policies, practices and physical environment support wellbeing and high performance without burnout? If you don’t know, find out! If the answer to any of these questions is “No”, consider making this a starting point for intervention. In the long run, no matter how fancy and comprehensive your wellness programs are, you’ll only be able to positively impact the wellbeing of your people if they work in a humanistic culture.

Instead of targeted interventions aimed at reducing specific “risk factors”, offer initiatives that promote a holistic approach to well-being. Is your organization offering opportunities for employees to improve not just physical health but other important aspects such as career, social, financial, community, emotional, and spiritual well-being? Do the programs and services your organization offers approach well-being holistically and honor the interconnectedness of the many components of the human experience? Does your organization’s approach to behavior change go beyond behavior to address the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are driving those behaviors? If not, consider how your company might reallocate resources from redundant annual screenings, predictable HRAs, and harmful weight loss programs to broader organizational and employee wellbeing initiatives that offer an inside-out approach to change.

One More Time to the Forest

Although I chose to highlight the story of the forest ecosystem in this article, I’ve recently come to understand that these themes of relationships and interconnectedness exist in virtually all elements of life from subatomic particles to the largest and most complex organizations created by mankind.

Not that I’d thought much about a forest ecosystem before listening to this podcast, but if I had, I would have said that the most important element to a tree’s survival was its own roots. I wrongly assumed that a tree could flourish on its own as long as it had strong roots, water, and minerals from the soil. I had no idea there was so much more to it than that! I now see my own overly-simplified thinking on this as analogous to the over-simplified thinking many in the wellbeing industry have about what it takes to create healthy, happy employees and flourishing organizations.

People are like trees. It’s not just our own bodies and how we feed and move them that influence whether we languish or thrive; there’s so much more to it than that! We are positively or negatively influenced by other people, the systems in which we spend time, and all the hidden stuff that goes on within and around us. To effectively foster lasting change, all these elements must be considered.

Yes, our organizations need us to be at our best in order for the company to really thrive, but the reverse is true, too. We need our organizations to be at their best in order for us to thrive! It's a two-way street. Or maybe more like a 7-mile stretch of fungal freeway.

I’ll close with a few sentences you’ve already read in this article. Only this time, instead of trees and fungi, I’ll be talking about humans and the organizations in which they work:

All the components are influencing each other - often in ways we can’t see or easily quantify. Every entity and every component of each entity has a purpose that it can only fulfill when it’s functioning in relationship with other components and as part of a meaningful whole. We are inextricably interconnected and each function at our best when working toward a common goal – a thriving organization where each component gets what it needs and also serves the others.

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