Joyful Adaptation in the Workplace

By Roy Inzunza

October 31, 2023

Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders

“Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.”
Psalm 126:6, NRSV

As a corporate chaplain, I’ve seen the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the workforce. It’s been over three years since the shutdown, and yet the ripple effects of a backed-up production and manufacturing industry are still felt by many companies. The war in Ukraine has also exasperated production for companies such as Audi, who provided harnesses for various components such as auto-adjusted seats, seat warmers, and mirror adjustments. The heaviness of disruption, increased stress, and a limited workforce are factors that have impacted many workers and executives. When we are at elevated levels of stress and anxiety, “we default to our level of [emotional regulation] training.” If we are constantly in reactivity and high-stress mode, chances are that we will experience some form of burnout. 

I have seen and heard workers and executives share the heaviness of the workload. I have a few people in mind who have had shingles, panic attacks, and mental exhaustion. They’re in the office cranking out emails, having meetings, drinking coffee, rushing from one task to another. Their inner monologue may sound something like this:

“If I don’t do it, who will?”

“The thought of taking time off stresses me even more.”

“It’s just a season.”

Burnout now seems like a regular occurrence in most workplaces I serve. It’s hard to see the heaviness. It’s hard to feel hope and joy when we feel like we’re in crisis mode with projects and deadlines. 

The year is coming to a close, and in our faith tradition, Advent is somewhat of a prophetic, disruptive message to those of us who are trying to close the year out strong. Yet Advent will not be silenced. It proclaims the gift of Jesus as the source of joy in our work and lives.

It’s hard to feel hope and joy when we feel like we’re in crisis mode with projects and deadlines.

The Advent season is a call to keep watch, to prepare for the coming of Christ the King. We are reminded that keeping watch is not a passive intention, but an active posture. John the Baptist is an example of someone who is pointing to the Messiah and can inspire us in the modern workplace to adapt and cultivate joy during seasons of burnout. There is a parallel between the prophetic work of John the Baptist and what needs to shift in the modern workplace in order to experience more joy and less misery, more delight and less despair. 

John the Baptist’s Work and Our Work

There are five observations I see from John the Baptist’s prophetic work that can be helpful for us in the workplace. 

1. Prepare the Way: Recognizing the Need for Adaptive Shifts

John the Baptist recognized how religious leaders were putting yolks of legalism on spiritual seekers. Like today, many were burning out over religious traditions, instead of experiencing joy and delight. So he practiced preaching a message of repentance (or as Adam Grant says, a message to “Think Again”), inviting people to adapt. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “A group of priests and Levites—Temple functionaries—came to check him out, sent by the Pharisees who were one of the leading pressure groups of the time. They had their own reasons for wanting to keep tabs on people. If someone was behaving in a strange new way, announcing a message from God, they wanted to know about it.” The gospel writer says that the religious leaders kept pressing John the Baptist with this primary question: “Who are you? Let us have an answer . . .” (John 1:21-22).

Modern workplaces are in need of spiritual renewal as well. Organizations must undergo their own “Think Again” process and recognize how their systems and structures are leading workers to burnout. And they must be willing to see joy as an indicator of healthy change.

2. Offering Solutions, Not Just Identifying Problems

John the Baptist was a prophetic voice, but he also engaged in practices to address the problems: He baptized and pointed people toward the Messiah. Baptisms are such joy-filled events. In John 1:6-8, the writer says that John the Baptist “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” He was just not identifying problems. He was offering a way toward joy through Jesus. John the Baptist said, “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:31). Our church recently held baptisms and there was a sense of delight as new believers committed their lives to Jesus and the Church. We don’t just call people to repent. We invite them into a new birth experience. That’s what John the Baptist was doing.

Modern Workplace: It’s not enough for companies and employees to name burnout. Burnout is a symptom of unattended values and behaviors. Organizations need to engage in adaptive solutions that connect back to their core ideology and practices that create health and joy. Here’s one of my favorite definitions of adaptive change:

“[T]echnical change—change on the surface—is not lasting change. Real, lasting change is called adaptive change, change that alters the very structure of the relationship or environment and touches on the deepest of issues such as values . . . .Technical change is change on the surface, using strategies and knowledge familiar to us. Sometimes technical change is good and even necessary, but it is not deep change. Adaptive change is deep change on the level of values, beliefs, and behavior.”

Adaptive change requires us to ask why we’re not experiencing joy and what are the deeper competing values that are blocking our ability to experience joyful engagement in the workplace.

I love moments of inspiration when managers are open to change. They undergo a sort of call to repentance as they realize the importance of cultivating an environment of safety and trust. The level of excitement increases as shared work life is deepened. It’s the Ted Lasso effect!

3. Living the Message: Leading by Example

John the Baptist was an early adopter of the monastic life and therefore learned to cultivate a deep intimacy with God. Walter Wink says, “The Evangelist’s desire [is] to portray John [the Baptist] as the ideal witness to Christ. . . . John is made the normative image of the Christian preacher, apostle and missionary, the perfect prototype of the true evangelist, whose one goal is self-effacement before Christ: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease [John 1:30].’” His life is an example of his message and his stated values matched his practices and context.

Modern Workplace: Organizations should not just advocate for well-being; they must cultivate it as part of the moral ecology. This means leaders take time off to be refreshed, emphasizing a “quality of life” work environment. I remember a handful of workers telling me that any time they would request time off, their manager or coworkers would say, “Must be nice . . . I wish I could.” The workers felt guilty and ashamed for taking their earned time off. We began to call it out and see it as an unhealthy pattern of managers feeling like they couldn’t take time off for fear of the work not getting done.

4. Pointing to Greater Joy

John the Baptist is a prime example of someone pointing to the ultimate source of joy and purpose: Jesus. In John 1:27 he says, “[Jesus is] the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” John’s intimate relationship with Jesus created alignment with a unique purpose: To point others toward Jesus. That was John’s purpose and joy!

Modern Workplace: While adaptive changes can alleviate burnout, the ultimate goal is a workplace filled with purpose, meaning, and joy. Every adaptive approach should have this broader vision as a core driver. In our consulting and chaplaincy agency, we believe that the workplace deserves purpose, meaning, and joy. Pat Lencioni, an organizational health practitioner, describing miserable jobs, says, “It’s the one you dread going to and can’t wait to leave. It’s the one that saps your energy even when you’re not busy. It’s the one that makes you go home at the end of the day with less enthusiasm and more cynicism than you had when you left in the morning.” Low morale is that feeling of misery at work where people feel disengaged and disregarded. Joy is the deep feeling of engagement, deep purpose, and a sense of meaning that contributes to the common good.

5. Deeper Identity

John the Baptist had the courage to claim his true identity and reject being labeled as someone he was not. It seems that when people feel anxious, they may take liberties to mistake their true identity. John the Baptist worked through his sense of vocation and said “I am not the Messiah . . . . I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness . . .” (John 1:20, 23). Joy is claiming who we truly are and the courage to self-differentiate enough to keep our egos in check. He recognized that his role was to prepare the way for the greater good, the Messiah who would come and break the power of sin and death. In John 1:19-21, John the Baptist asserts who he is not: I Am Not The Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. But then he says in verses 22-28 that he is a Voice in the Wilderness, I Am a Baptizer in Water, and I Am Unworthy to Untie His Sandals. John’s joy was to point others to the true Giver of joy.

Joy is claiming who we truly are and the courage to self-differentiate enough to keep our egos in check.

Modern Workplace: In the workplace, we sometimes overfunction by wearing too many roles and identities. We put too much pressure on ourselves and others to be running “one hundred” at all times. We have a bit of a savior complex, not understanding our true nature and identity as beloved children of God. We can over-emphasize our positional power or wish we had more authority to effect change.

Adaptive Approaches Can Lead to Advent Joy

The Advent theme of joy, connected with John the Baptist’s proactive and adaptive approaches, serves as a needed reminder for the modern workplace. As John prepared the way for greater joy in Christ, so too can workplaces pave the way for purpose, meaning, and joy. We long for workplace environments that attend to symptoms of burnout and create systems that cultivate deep joy. Through adaptive shifts, the joy promised in Advent can become a lived reality for many in the work world.

By using an adaptive approach within the context of Advent and John the Baptist’s actions, we can draw deep and meaningful parallels that highlight the potential for profound change and joyous renewal in the workplace. We keep watch and actively await the coming of Christ as the source of joy in our places of work. May Christ illuminate our hearts and minds as we seek creative ways to cultivate joy.

As John prepared the way for greater joy in Christ, so too can workplaces pave the way for purpose, meaning, and joy.

Roy Inzunza

Writer & Author

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