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Forget about hybrid. Sustainable is the new paradigm.

I am a polar bear plunger. A proud member of the Polar Bear Club in Antwerp. I cycle to the natural swimming pond in Boekenberg park three times a week to take pleasure in swimming in icy water.

In the photograph you can see me warming up. I’m still in my living room.

What is particular to these seasoned polar bears is that they make no sound when sliding into the water. “Thou shalt not make a racket!” seems to be the unwritten rule. To scream is to waste energy, energy that is better used to control your breathing. But not only that, club members also look after one another. “Don’t stay in the water too long!” Advice I’ve been given many times by the other polar bear swimmers and lifeguards. Better to be safe than sorry. The framework is also strong: a safe and well-maintained infrastructure, guaranteed by the City of Antwerp.

What surprises me is that the simple measures that ensure long-lasting club members, are not applied in the corporate world.

In organisations, the rule for a sustainable use of energy is violated on a daily basis. We waste time in meetings and mails instead of using time to create value for customers. And what about taking care of ourselves ? We don’t use the hours that have become available from commuting less to exercise. Screen time has only increased.

Do legal initiatives such as 'the right to disconnect', initiated by Belgian minister Petra De Sutter, offer any comfort? Is this right to be unavailable outside normal working hours a next step toward sustainable work? And, which actors play a role in this?

Searching for answers I came across the ideas of professors Deci & Ryan. In the 1970s they developed the self-determination theory (SDT). SDT is a compilation of six mini theories including that of autonomous motivation. People thrive when finding pleasure in their tasks (intrinsic motivation) or when considering them meaningful (internalised extrinsic motivation).

I really am a fan of that part of the SDT. If we are to believe Deci & Ryan, autonomous motivation is a sustainable source of energy. Sustainable employability assumes that employees are aware of what drives them. Organisations that favour SDT are committed to encouraging introspection. Self-knowledge is an important step toward sustainable employability.

Not really something I can find in Petra De Sutter’s text. Patronising and encouraging introspection are rather opposites.

Other elements that contribute to sustainable employability are to be found in Karasek’s model. This American sociologist explains how two job characteristics influence employees' psychological well-being: Job Demands (work pressure and task complexity) and Job Control (task variation and autonomy). Karasek hereby argues that autonomy has a buffering effect: people can take on high work pressure as long as they have enough autonomy.

Recent research draws a different picture. Jobs with high Job Demands and high Job Control don’t score well on psychological fatigue, absenteeism patterns or turnover intention. In a nutshell: work pressure and performance targets need to remain manageable.

Karasek’s model and the recent research make it clear that not only individuals, but also managers and organisations have a role to play if they want to make sure people work longer and that they stay healthy while doing so. Is there enough task variation? Is the load attainable? Does the organisation allow employees to take decision themselves about how to meet the job demands? Interesting questions that go further than the need for disconnection.

A third element we can take along in the reflection on sustainability is the advice given in 2020 by the (Dutch) Scientific Council for Government Policy: “Good work means a grip on money, a grip on work, a grip on life”. In the text you can read echoes of the SDT and Karasek’s model, but the authors go further: good work supposes fairness, security of income, being able to fall back on social security in difficult situations and high-quality childcare.

To sum things up: policy makers, organisations, managers as well as the individual, they all play a role in creating sustainable employability. A safety net, preventive measures, autonomy, fairness, attainable strain, prevention, but also self-discipline, introspection and not wasting precious energy. It’s all there.

At the Polar Bear Club in Deurne we apply many of these elements with a natural flair. I invite our minister Petra De Sutter to take an icy and refreshing plunge in the natural swimming pond in Boekenberg Park in Deurne.

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