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What I Learned From Chickens

On a recent flight to the East Coast I was nearing the end of Farmacology by Dr. Daphne Miller. My brother, an organic farmer in New York, originally gifted me the book so I could learn more about gut health, local farms and good soil. But as I read the last chapter on chicken farms, I couldn’t help but notice some amusing connections to employee wellbeing while reviewing the data on pasture-raised and cage-free chickens.

In a pasture-raised environment, chickens enjoy more space, indoor and outdoor exposure and natural light. As a result, they can be observed playing, moving around, communicating (chirping), socializing and taking dust baths to remove infectious mites. Their beaks remain in tact, allowing dual use of arm and mouth. Cage-free chickens live in more crowded, stressful and constrictive environments. As a result, they are less social, have less freedom or choice, have less community, cannot retreat to anywhere quiet, cannot take care of themselves physically (i.e., exercise, dust baths), and suffer from cramps and inactivity due to having less room to move and run.

According to Miller, cage-free chickens, while raised in more crowded, less humane conditions, technically produced more eggs and larger eggs than their pasture-raised peers. They seemed to be the smart business decision, even if one wanted to provide the more natural, humane environment pasture-raised chickens enjoy.

However, the cage-free eggs are not as nutritious, have thinner shells and break more often (costing money in waste) and, anecdotally, don’t look or taste as good. Conversely, pasture-raised eggs are smaller and the chickens produce less, but they can be sold for more (i.e., they are more valuable), they look and taste better, and they are more nutritious.

The difference lies in the environmental stressors that contribute to allostatic overload. Cage-free chickens live with stressors that are low intensity but constantly present, and pasture raised chickens experience more intense stress (from outdoor predators, foot injuries after falling from high perches, etc.) but this stress is situational and less frequent. High-intensity but low frequency stress was found to be normal, even healthy at times. However, low-intensity but high frequency (i.e., ever-present stress) leads to allostatic overload, resulting in a variety of chronic issues and brain changes involving the hippocampus and hypothalamus.

As I learned more about these little creatures and the levels of stress in their environments, I couldn't help but think about the critical mistakes we continue to make in the world of work.

With each passing year, it seems as though our work is requiring more and giving less. More time at work means less time with our loved ones, being involved in hobbies, or taking time to recharge. More energy dedicated to meetings and urgent projects means less energy for movement, making a nutritious meal or being present and compassionate with a friend. The result of this traditional work mindset reflects the consequences of our cage-free friends, who have a significantly lower quality of life and health than their humanely-raised peers. Employees who overwork also technically produce more, but the output during those long hard hours is likely of lower quality or value.

When companies focus on analyzing and solving the root causes of retention, productivity and wellbeing decline, they solve crippling people problems before they start.

Productivity alone is no longer the best measure of a sustainable, thriving business. On the cage-free farms Dr. Miller studied, she found hidden costs were associated with employees being exposed to the same harmful, stressful conditions as the cage-free chickens, which resulted in respiratory issues, higher worker disability and higher turnover than the pasture-raised conditions. While the cage-free chickens were working harder and longer and producing larger eggs more frequently, the model was not actually the most sustainable for business.

Possibly the most alarming similarity was that the largest stressor for the cage-free chickens was found in the social-emotional area of “behavioral freedom”. According to research by Jeffrey Pfeffer, lack of autonomy over decision-making (similar to behavioral freedom) was one of the top variables found to affect an employee’s physical health (not to mention the mental health consequences of having little control over your work). Farmers found they could manipulate the productivity of worker chickens by changing their environments to remain in the barn, not controlled by seasons or sunlight, so the chickens became a factory of egg-layers instead of animals that thrive in sunlight, move about, and take care of their bodies with dust baths. We have found ourselves at a tipping point in the way we work and live, with work taking more and more time, giving us less and less freedom to be parents, travelers, hobbyists or simply humans that have time to move and eat well.

Thankfully, the world of work is beginning to take on some employee wellbeing early adopters. But in order to improve work and life at the cultural level, we must be cognizant of the environments in which we work each day. Wellbeing programs fail when workers lack the time and energy to take advantage of them. When employees find themselves in constant stress responses throughout their 10-hour workdays, a free nutritious lunch or 30-minute meditation can miss it’s well-intended purpose. When companies understand where stress and wellbeing decline starts, they can take a foundational step and solve these issues at their root. This critical step paves the way for more successful wellbeing programs and offerings that truly improve retention, performance and wellbeing.

Chickens need to be chickens in order to be the best egg-layers. Humans need to be humans in order to produce the highest quality of work for the longest periods of time. The moral of this story is not surprising, but it validates the physical, mental and emotional needs of the people that make up our companies. By assessing root causes of work-related health decline instead of placing the burden solely on the shoulder of employees, companies can save money and time while creating companies- and employees- that thrive.