Jeff Haanen

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Jeff Haanen

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Spiritual FormationWork

Anxious America (Part 1)

How to Respond Faithfully to the Mental Health Crisis

I shut my laptop abruptly late one afternoon. I realized I was holding my breath. My neck and scalp were tingling and my shoulders were tight. I put my hand over my chest and felt my heart racing. It was just an unpleasant email, I thought. Why am I feeling like this? I stood up from the kitchen table, only to feel dizzy. I sat down again, just to breathe. 

It was early 2022. For months I had been experiencing increased anxiety, often making work and family responsibilities hard to manage. Tensions in my extended family and at work, mixed with intense cultural polarization, caused me to honestly ask myself two questions: Is there something wrong with me? And am I the only one feeling like this?

The Real Pandemic

After some digging, I came to learn that anxiety and challenges around mental health may be one of the most universal human experiences of the past several years. The CDC reported in July 2022 that 28.8% of Americans report symptoms of anxiety disorder; for 18-29 year olds, it’s a staggering 42.9%. In December 2021, the Surgeon General warned of a growing youth mental health crisis.  And today, nearly one-quarter of Americans over age 18 are medicated for anxiety, depression or ADHD. No wonder President Biden called for national response to the growing mental health crisis in his 2022 State of the Union Address.  

The pandemic didn’t create a global mental health crisis, but it did make it worse. “I believe we saw the exacerbation of mental health issues during the pandemic,” says Marvin Williams, 57, the lead pastor of Trinity Church in Lansing, Michigan. Williams, a Black pastor in a predominately White church (“which carries its own anxieties,” he says), believes the convergence of the pandemic, political division, and growing issues around race created a perfect storm. “Those three things coming together at the same time revealed even more of what was under the hood,” says Williams. Globally, the World Health Organization found the pandemic sparked a 25% increase in anxiety and depression. 

Chronic anxiety is increasingly commonplace and even severe mental health issues have been on the rise for years. In the last two decades, suicide rates have risen 30%, and in 2020, 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide. Princeton researchers Angus Deaton and Anne Case found that “deaths of despair” – death by drug overdose, suicide, and alcoholism – have risen sharply, particularly for working class communities.  For the first time in the modern era, even before the pandemic, life expectancy rates started to decline. 

So what’s causing the growing mental health crisis? Many point to a loneliness epidemic. NPR reports 60% of Americans are lonely, which the pandemic perpetuated when workplaces and schools were shut down, impacting a generation of young people.  The inability to gather during COVID led to fewer in-person relationships, sapping people’s resilience to stress.

Many also point to heightened social tensions in the past two years. “In our culture we’ve seen increasing political and social polarization, increasing awareness of sexual assault and racial violence and inequity, and we’ve had two very polarizing election cycles,” says Warren Kinghorn, a psychiatrist and co-director of the Theology, Medicine and Culture program at Duke University. “Our experience has been that mental health clinicians are in high demand, especially since the pandemic.” Kinghorn notes colleges and universities are reporting a significant increase in demand for student mental health services.

Others point to another plague for young people: the rise of social media and smartphones. Not only has social media led to growing political division due to an inability to effectively communicate, but studies have also found that overuse of smartphones actually warps teenage brains, causing anxiety, depression, impulse control problems, and sleep disorders. Dr. Jean Twenge, author of the best-selling book iGen, has found that this generation of teens, when compared to teens in the 1970s, are less likely to go out with peers, more likely to say they feel left out or lonely, and more likely to report they don’t enjoy life.  These rates went up markedly since 2012 – the first year smartphones hit the market. 

It may still be that something is wrong with me. But if the statistics are right, I’m certainly not alone. 

Pioneers in Compassion

The church has been responding to mental health issues since its inception. The ancient Romans thought mental illness was caused by divine punishment, evil spirits, or an imbalance of the humors. Treatments ranged from philosophizing to bloodletting. Yet, noting Jesus’ compassion for the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8:28-34, Luke 8:26-39), early church fathers innovated in devising new methods of care for the poor and mentally ill. 

In 370, St. Basil opened a ptochotropeion, a hospital intended to serve the poor, indigent, and ill. In contrast to Greek hospitals of the time, who would only serve those who could pay, Basil offered care to all, founding what historians believe to be the first public hospital. 

The Medieval Church continued to innovate ways to serve the mentally ill. The 7th-Century Irish Saint Dymphna inspired the town of Geel, located in modern Belgium, to pioneer de-institutionalized care for the mentally ill, where patients would interact with townspeople during daytime and sleep at the hospital at night. 

A century later, Father Joan Gilabert Jofré (1350-1417) was on his way to the Cathedral in Valencia for the first Sunday in Lent.  When he saw two men brutally attacking a “madman,” he rescued the victim, took him back to his convent, and preached a sermon about establishing an institution to care for the mentally ill. Afterwards, eleven patrons gathered to found arguably the first psychiatric care institution in Europe.

Indeed, anxiety and depression have been present throughout church history, including the 20th century. We’ve always had reasons to worry, whether they be the anthrax scare, 9/11, school shootings or the cultural turmoil of previous generations, like the Vietnam War or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mental Health Awareness Month wasn’t founded in 2020; it has been observed in the US every May since 1949. “Cast your anxiety on him because he cares for you” is a comfort and mandate for all generations (1 Peter 5:7). 

And yet, something does seem different today. 

Many in the modern world experience unprecedented levels of wealth and physical comfort, but report being deeply unhappy – actually at the highest rate in the last 70 years, reports Gallup. The speed of technology and rapid cultural fragmentation are undoubtedly influencing us, especially young people. And the lines between mental illness and everyday experience seem to be blurring for millions. 

Can the church offer unique insight today for those battling anxiety, depression, and mental illness?

This article is the first section of a full essay to be published at The Reformed Journal in November 2022. Next week I’ll publish the second of the three part series.

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BusinessEconomyFinanceWork

Strong, Weak and Courageous

Why Investors and Entrepreneurs Need Both Authority and Vulnerability to Heal the World Through Business

One fateful, icy afternoon in Burnsville, Minnesota, I learned the difference between authority and vulnerability. 

I was in seventh grade and a friend invited me to snowboard at Buck Hill. I had never snowboarded before, but I figured, how hard could it be? Late that afternoon, I found out. I got off the lift and cautiously slid back and forth, carefully cutting my edges. Then I began to pick up speed on an icy slope. Before I knew it, I was bombing down the hill and lost control. After I regained consciousness, my friends said the crash was “epic,” like a test dummy flying wildly down a hill. I separated my shoulder and had to be carried off the hill by medics. 

That day, little did I know when strapping on my boots, I was highly vulnerable to disaster – and the authority of an expert (or even amateur) snowboarder was but a distant dream. For years, whenever I would watch the Olympic games, I would marvel at the exploits of snowboarding legends like Shaun White, who combined the vulnerability of high-flying acrobatics with the authority of an expert snowboarder. The combination of the two led to both drama and admiration. Risk and expertise, I came to learn, was the pinnacle of achievement.

Andy Crouch’s wonderful little book Strong and Weak combines these two ideas – authority and vulnerability – in a beautiful little 2×2 that I believe has tremendous implications for both investors and the entrepreneurs they serve. 

The 2×2 has four quadrants: Flourishing, Suffering, Withdrawing, and Exploiting. 

I. Flourishing. First, Crouch says human flourishing comes when you combine authority, which he defines as the capacity for meaningful action, with vulnerability, which is exposure to meaningful risk. 

Take, for example, parenthood. Parents can shape flourishing families when they have the ability to lead, love, and care for their children, as well as open themselves to the pain of real relationships with their kids. A healthy family requires parents who take action for the well-being of each other, and open themselves enough to pain that love becomes real. Authority and vulnerability together lead to flourishing. 

II. Suffering. Suffering comes, however, when we have vulnerability without authority. Crouch describes poverty as the inability to change one’s circumstances. All risk, no power. Suffering can come in many forms – physical, emotional, psychological, social or spiritual. And it’s something every single person has felt at one point or another in their lives. 

The best thing you can do to help somebody who’s suffering is to help them build lasting authority. For example, if somebody is in poverty, giving them a chunk of money rarely has a lasting, positive impact. However, giving that person job training, counseling, new social networks, or a sense of hope increases their agency, their say-so over their lives.  People are raised out of poverty when they have the means to take meaningful action once more. 

III. Withdrawing. Those who have both low exposure to risk and low ability withdraw from the world around them. This could be an addicted video gamer, men who’ve withdrawn from the workforce, or a wealthy person who’s withdrawn to a country club life of golf and long lunches. Safety becomes the sole aim of these people who become, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

The temptation for most is not complete apathy, but “busying ourselves” with activities that neither ask much of us nor transform us. We need safety as children to properly grow, but a life without meaningful sacrifice tends to feel empty. Withdrawal is a major problem in the modern workforce, and it’s a temptation that those in rich countries especially face almost daily. 

IV. Exploiting. Exploitation is found wherever people maximize power while seeking to eliminate risk, says Crouch. Authority without vulnerability leads to enclaves of separation. On the extreme side, this could be a warlord in sub-Saharan Africa; a more daily experience of this would be hoarding resources for ourselves, hedging our futures against risk through stockpiling money or assets. 

Crouch also notes that, in general, risk shed by one group is inevitably borne by others’ suffering. A slumlord who is completely separated from the lives of his tenants, for example, creates unhealthy living environments for his poor renters. Movement out of the exploitation quadrant is characterized by a willingness to take on the risk of those who suffer. 

Linking Arms to Move Toward Flourishing

Crouch’s framework is a helpful way to look at both investing and entrepreneurship. In my experience, most investors by default tend to live in the exploiting quadrant, and most entrepreneurs tend to live in the suffering quadrant. Here’s what I mean:

The task of modern investing is sadly often reduced to maximizing returns while minimizing risk. But what does this reduction lead to? Returns at all cost cause for those who allocate capital (either professionally or passively) and the expectation of those returns regardless of the volatility and challenges of real life business. Investors who don’t open themselves to meaningful risk can inadvertently cause oppression by forcing entrepreneurs to make choices that maximize returns, but don’t serve the best interest of employees, customers, or communities. Those who only look at quarterly returns, I’d argue, are at a high risk of finding  themselves in the exploiting quadrant by default. 

Entrepreneurs, however, usually live in the suffering quadrant. Our culture tends to make entrepreneurs into heroes, people with the utmost agency to chart the course for the future. But entrepreneurship is a wild, uncertain, and highly stressful ride. Take for example, the case of Rivian, the electric vehicle startup. Recently I listened to Guy Raz’s interview with Rivian founder RJ Scaringe. To build a car company, Scaringe had a nearly impossible task: not only invent an electric truck, but raise enormous amounts of capital (over $1B), hire staff (and keep up staff morale), pivot numerous times even when it wasn’t clear what problem they should be solving, and project confidence despite internally struggling with doubts (I bet he was even doing this on the podcast.) Entrepreneurs look powerful from the outside, but are hugely vulnerable, and their authority to make significant change is often far less than the news stories would make us think.  

What entrepreneurs need is an investor who truly believes in what they’re doing, is willing to take meaningful risk, and be patient. Entrepreneurs living under returns-at-all-costs investors may be unable to invest in important, long-term choices that are needed for the holistic health of employees, customers, and the broader business. Long-term decisions often must bow to short-term returns, and true growth becomes difficult to fund. Short-term thinking also renders it challenging to build company programs that, say, provide flexible work schedules for single moms or second-chances to ex-offenders. The ‘minimize risk, maximize return’ profile trickles down into decisions that have real, long term impact on the poor and vulnerable. 

What would the healing of this dynamic look like? I believe it would look like investors who take meaningful risk, seeking to level the playing field of information disparities between professional investors and entrepreneurs through transparency, and through structuring financing that is a win-win as co-owners of a business alongside the entrepreneur. They’d be willing to invest first in the long-term health of the entrepreneurs they serve, rather than succumb to the all-too-common dynamic of entrepreneurs serving investors. They wouldn’t pressure them for an exit, but would work collaboratively with CEOs to understand what’s best for the business. 

It would also mean investing expertise along with capital in entrepreneurs, helping them to deeply understand their customers, lead their employees, and make decisions for the business that lead to long-term health. In short, investors would team up with entrepreneurs to take  meaningful risk together, putting the tools in entrepreneurs hands that  give greater capacity for meaningful action, so that the investor and entrepreneur can flourish together. 

This healed vision of business would also start to remedy the supposed trade off between impact and risk. Business is fundamentally about serving an unmet need, yet for millions around the world, their most basic needs go unmet daily. Moving into “risky” markets, like sub-Saharan Africa, or building businesses in underserved markets, like a low-income area of Dallas, requires investors and entrepreneurs who exercise authority and vulnerability together. When this happens, the enterprise itself becomes thoroughly good, pulling people at all levels of the business from the quadrants of exploiting, withdrawing, and suffering into the realm of human flourishing.  

Today, I still marvel at the skiers and snowboarders who expertly conquer moguls or jumps. Yet in Crouch’s book, he asks an interesting question about the skiing metaphor (that I shamelessly borrowed from his book): what if at the bottom of the hill there was an injured child, alone and in the snow, that only the skier could save? Would that change how you view the task ahead, and the risks involved? 

To become this expert ‘champion’ who sees business as a noble calling requires forging new alliances between investors and entrepreneurs who have their sights set higher than simply maximizing shareholder return. 

In short, it requires courage. 

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Photo Credit; Header Image

Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He’s also a Creator-in-Residence for Eagle Venture Fund, where this article first appeared.

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Craftsmanship & Manual LaborVocationWork

Where Are All the Workers? (Comment, September 1, 2022)

How to Revive a Wilting Workforce

This week, Comment published my essay “Where Are All the Workers? How to Revive a Wilting Workforce.”

In the essay, I address something we’re all feeling, whether at the airport or the local restaurant: the labor shortage. We are facing a historic pinch: the global workforce is aging, birthrates are declining, labor participation rates are decreasing, and many people are not willing to take middle skill jobs – or really any job. In my paper I argue, however, the pandemic has changed our mood around work. From China to the US, we’re now living in an age of anti-ambition, characterized by what the medieval church called acedia, or sloth – which is not just laziness, but a sorrow at having to do good, challenging work.

I make three key points in the paper. First, work as an expression of one’s gifts, interests, and talents, rather than simply extracting maximal wages for minimal effort, is the critical element of a dynamic, growing economy. Second, historic ideas of Christian vocation can be translated into a secular economy to revive a weary workforce. And third, work, and the plight of the world’s workers, is the great social issue of our age.

Here’s how I begin the essay:

It was a Sunday afternoon and I was setting up for a game of musical chairs on my back deck. As the sun shone, I carefully counted black lawn chairs and placed them facing out, in a circle, with one chair less than the number of RSVPs for my daughter’s seventh birthday party. It felt a little cruel to set up a rigged game like this, but I reasoned it was a classic of childhood competition. What could be more American?

Before the pandemic, the labour market felt like a game of musical chairs. Employers created jobs, expected more applications than positions, and when the music stopped, they chose the best employees for the role. Of course, some were left out, but they could be trained to run faster next time and grab a chair, right?

But in the last two years, for both employees and employers, it feels like somebody tipped over the chairs, threw some into the yard, and shut off the music. And half of the kids left early from the birthday party, deciding they didn’t really want to play musical chairs anyway.

Not only has the pandemic has created a labour shortage, it has changed the world of work for all us. We now desperately need to find new ways to infuse life into a weary workforce.

Read the rest of the essay at Comment.

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Spiritual FormationTheologyVocationWork

“A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” – A Sermon on Exodus 19-20

I recently had the chance to preach at my home church, Wellspring Anglican in Englewood, Colorado. I spoke on Exodus 19-20 and focused on God’s promise to the new nation of Israel in Exodus 19:5-6: “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

In the sermon dive into what it would have meant to be a “kingdom of priests” and how Israel was called to be a “holy nation” in both their personal and public lives. I also ask some hard, personal questions about how – if it’s even possible – we might become holy.

I hope you enjoy listening. I’d be glad for your feedback below in the comments section.

“A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” – A Sermon on Exodus 19-20

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BusinessCraftsmanship & Manual LaborEconomyWork

How to Get Smart About Workforce Development

Let’s assume that you, the reader, are one of three people:

  1. Through news, personal experience, or another avenue, you’ve noticed the drastic (and growing) economic disparities between hourly-wage workers and those who own capital (some asset, usually in the form of stock in a business or home equity). You may be unsure what to do to help, but you feel that something ought to change.
  • You’re a business owner or manager and you’re having an awfully hard time hiring people, and you’re seeing that increasing wages or offering one-time bonuses just isn’t doing the trick.
  • You work in the civic sector, and you’ve noticed that getting somebody an entry-level job is really no longer sufficient to get somebody out of poverty because capital is growing faster than wages, and the people you serve just seem to be getting further and further behind.

Ok, maybe you’re none of these three, but you simply care about growing economic inequality and you believe that something must be done. That’s where I was years ago when I discovered the field of workforce development. For me, workforce development sat between my interest in Christian cultural engagement through work and God’s ever-present concern for the vulnerable (James 5:4). It’s a field of wide-ranging interest in educating and training workers, that ranges from employee benefits to workplace learning programs to employee stock ownership programs.

I wrote on the topic in my 2018 Christianity Today article “God of the Second Shift” (and forthcoming book), but I’ve never provided a simple guide to introduce people to this industry. The reality is, before we take action in helping low-income workers, we must commit to first learning. Having put together this ten week “curriculum” for a friend recently, I now share it with you.

Before you begin, you should know that I think a variety of learning formats is the best way to really grow, including reading, listening, meeting with experts in person, and processing what you’ve learned with trusted friends. Also, a disclaimer: I’m a Denverite, so I’ll drop some names on here who I think are particularly knowledgeable about this topic. If you don’t know them yet, I encourage you to offer to buy them lunch. If you’re out of town, reach out on LinkedIn to see if they’ll do a call.

So, grab a friend, put some 30-minute blocks on the calendar for discussion, and commit to getting smarter about the most important social issue of our time: the plight of our world’s workers.

How to Get Smart About Workforce Development in 10 Weeks

Week 1

READ: God of the Second Shift, Christianity Today cover story, by Jeff Haanen. This article is an introduction to workforce development from the perspective of yours truly.

LISTEN: “The Good Jobs Advantage,” by Jeff Haanen. In this 15-minute talk, I give an overview to why I believe a good job can be transformative not only for the employee, but also a competitive advantage for a business.

Week 2

READ: The Pinkerton Papers, Job Quality Series, #1 by Steven Dawson. Workforce development expert Steven Dawson gives an overview to why we need a “better jobs strategy” to really roll back poverty in the US.

MEET: Dan Kaskubar. Dan is a friend, consultant, and former COO at Activate Workforce Solutions. He’s worked with businesses to serve their frontline workers and seen transformative impact. Well worth picking his brain over coffee or a call.

Week 3

READ: The Pinkerton Papers, Job Quality Series, #3 by Steven Dawson. In this paper, Dawson makes the case that if you really want to see big change, we’ll need engagement from both business and nonprofits/governments.  

LISTENWhy it Pays to Raise Pay, by Adam Grant. Might it actually be more profitable long-term to raise the pay of your lowest paid workers? Best-selling author and Wharton professor Adam Grant believes so.

Week 4

READ: Pinkerton Papers, Job Quality Series, #6 by Steven Dawson. In a tight labor market, now even more than before the pandemic, Dawson argues we need to build alliances between employers and workforce development practitioners.

MEET:Julie Stone. She is the expert on family and worker economic mobility in Denver. Learn from her over lunch or a call, and hear her insights into the critical gap between a starting, hourly wage and an income that could actually support a family.

Week 5

READ: Top Ten Job Quality Resources, by Steven Dawson. This is an incredible overview to the organizations and best resources on workforce development in the US today, both for employers and civic organizations.

LISTEN: Light listening this week! Just listen to these testimonials of people who got a good job, and how it changed their lives. We at DIFW made this video for an event on this years ago.

Week 6

READ: The Good Jobs Strategy” Harvard Business Review, by MIT Professor Zeynep Ton. (And peruse this website.) There’s a way to better your competitors and provide higher paying jobs: the secret is in product selection, operations, and culture…

LISTEN: The Four Qualities of a Just Leader” by David Spickard. What does it mean to be “just” in a position of influence? Look no further. This podcast by former Jobs for Life CEO David Spickard is tops.

Week 7

READ: Building from the Bottom Up.” Here’s an HBS report on how businesses can better uplift and give opportunity to low-income workers. Crunched on time? Skip to page 82 and just take action on these bullet points.

LISTEN: Hardly Working by Brent Orrell at the American Enterprise Institute. This intro podcast is a good place to start on how Brent and his team at AEI think about vocation, career, work and poverty alleviation. Really, anything he writes is worth reading.

Week 8

READ: Employer Resource Networks.” The Employer Resource Network (ERN) is “an innovative model through which local networks of employers collectively provide work support services to their entry-level workforces, with the goal of enhancing productivity and retention.”  Well worth learning about. (The ROI for businesses is really quite astounding.)

LISTEN: Here’s a short video of Karla Nugent, the Chief Business Development Officer at Weifield Group. She’s innovated an apprenticeship program at her business for those coming out of poverty. She offers an incredible example of risk-taking that ultimately just looks like good business.

Week 9

READ: The Company of Second Chances,” Wall Street Journal. An incredible story of a faith-motivated company, Nehemiah Manufacturing, and their work employing those with a criminal past.

MEET: Zoe Schlag. Zoe is doing innovative work on Employee Ownership Trusts and how they can be both a viable exit plan for business owners and a transformative ownership opportunity for workers.

Week 10

READ: KKR to Sell CHI Overhead Doors to Nucor, Generating Windfall for Itself and Employees,” Wall Street Journal. What if when a business sells to a huge private equity firm…the workers, not just management, got a windfall? It’s happening.  

WATCH: Watch one of these case studies on how employee ownership can have transformative impact for both the bottom line and for workers.

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REFLECT: Now that you’ve take some time to learn about business’s most important asset – its people – write down at least three takeaways that will influence your work. Then share those insights with a friend, family member or co-worker.

Not sure where to start? But interested in taking action on transforming the lives and families of your company’s workers? Reach out to schedule a call.

Photo Credit: CHI’s Hourly Workers

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