By Schon Beechler
Social responsibility is all the rage. While some of the current efforts reflect public relations hype with very little substance, an increasing number of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations are focusing on a variety of ways to create long-term sustainability by both protecting the environment and caring for their human assets. Most efforts directed toward sustainability of an organization’s human assets have focused on current employees, but there is also a role that organizations can play in helping others outside their boundaries to create a positive triple-bottom-line impact for individuals, organizations, and communities–a role that Viktor Frankl gives us insight into.
Neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, was born into a Jewish family of civil servants in Vienna, Austria on March 26, 1905. Frankl grew up in Vienna, the birthplace of modern psychiatry and home of the renowned psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler and his interest in psychology surfaced early. After graduating from Gymnasium in 1923, he studied medicine at the University of Vienna and later specialized in neurology and psychiatry, concentrating on the topics of depression and suicide. From 1933-1937 he headed the so-called Selbstmörderpavillon, or “suicide pavilion”, of the General Hospital in Vienna where he treated over 30,000 women prone to suicide. Yet, starting from the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, he was prohibited from treating “Aryan” patients due to his Jewish identity. He moved into private practice until starting work in 1940 at the Rothschild Hospital, where he headed its neurological department, and practiced as a brain surgeon. This hospital, at the time, was the only one in Vienna in which Jews were still admitted. Several times, his medical opinions saved patients from being euthanised via the Nazi euthanasia program.
In 1942 Frankl married his first wife, Tilly Grosser. Nine months later, on September 25, 1942, Frankl, his wife and his parents were rounded up and deported to the Theresienstadt camp near Prague. There Frankl worked as a general practitioner in a clinic until his skill in psychiatry was noticed, when he was asked to establish a special unit to help newcomers to the camp overcome shock and grief. He later set up a suicide watch unit, and all intimations of suicide were reported to him. To maintain his own feeling of being worthy of his sufferings in the dismal conditions, he would frequently march outside and deliver a lecture to an imaginary audience about “Psychotherapeutic Experiences in a Concentration Camp.” He believed that by fully experiencing the suffering objectively, he would thereby end it. Though assigned to ordinary labor details until the last few weeks of the war, Frankl continued to cure fellow prisoners from despondency and prevent suicide.
Even though he was in four Nazi camps, Frankl survived the Holocaust, including Auschwitz in Poland from 1942-45, where the camp doctor Josef Mengele, was supervising the division of the incoming prisoners into two lines. Those in the line moving left were to go to the gas chambers, while those in the line moving right were to be spared. Frankl was directed to join the line moving left, but managed to save his life by slipping into the other line without being noticed. Other members of his family were not so fortunate. Frankl’s wife, his parents, and other members of his family died in the concentration camps.
On April 27, 1945, Frankl was liberated by the Americans. On returning to Vienna after Germany’s defeat, Frankl, who had secretly been keeping a record of his observations in the camps on scraps of paper, published a book in German setting out his ideas on Logotherapy.
Frankl’s concentration camp experiences shaped both his therapeutic approach and philosophical outlook, as reflected in his seminal publications. In his influential and enduring book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes how he persevered in the face of crushing labor, sadistic guards, and scant food. Frankl elaborated the theory he had begun before his arrest. He argues that “man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”
Frankl and others managed to find meaning and purpose even in the unimaginably ghastly setting of a concentration camp. It was due to his and others’ suffering in the concentration camps that he came to his hallmark conclusion that even in the most absurd, painful and dehumanized situation, life has potential meaning and that therefore even suffering is meaningful. Viktor Frankl notes in the interview above that the definition of despair can be reduced to a simple formula: D = S – M. Despair = Suffering – Meaning. Frankl insists that despair is not a function of a situation itself. Indeed, if people can find meaning in suffering, this becomes a kind of achievement that turns tragedy into personal triumph. As Frankl recounts in the interview referenced above, a man paralyzed from the neck down from a diving accident captured it beautifully, “I broke my neck but it did not break me.”
Research on individuals who have experienced personal traumas shows that they often search for meaning in events that disrupt their conceptions of themselves and the world in which they live. Finding meaning in tragedy can help people heal and regain a sense of purpose and meaningfulness in their lives.
Finding meaning and purpose provides not only a path away from extreme negative outcomes like despair and suicide, but influences physical and mental health in all aspects of our day-to-day lives.
Finding Meaning Outside of Work
Many people find meaning in their work and can become lost when they lose their job or retire. Even more short term, Frankl is thought to have coined the term “Sunday Neurosis” referring to a form of depression resulting from an awareness in some people of the emptiness of their lives once the working week is over. In the last number of years, as longevity and quality of life have increased dramatically for many individuals, the search for meaning continues long after retirement.
Among the elderly, several studies of older Americans find that one of the best predictors for happiness is whether or not the person thinks his or her life has a purpose. For those with no sense of purpose, seven out of ten people studied felt unsettled about their lives. For those who had a sense of purpose, 70% felt satisfied.
Researchers have discovered that having a sense of purpose need not be difficult. For example, Stephanie Brown, in a five year study with 423 older couples, found that couples who reported being unpaid for helping somebody even as infrequently as once a year through volunteering, baby sitting for grandchildren, or assisting family members were between 40 to 60% less likely to die than those who reported not helping anyone. There are now a number of studies that show that volunteering can improve self esteem, reduce heart rates and blood pressure, increase endorphin production, enhance immune systems, and buffer the impact of stress.
Implications for Leaders
While leaders often focus on their own employees’ engagement, the research results on the role of meaning in the lives of the elderly point to a possible win-win for both companies and retirees. There are many individuals who are still mentally and physically fit not working in our society who could benefit from making a meaningful contribution. Some organizations are finding ways to mobilize retirees to help with mentoring younger employees, participate in community service projects, or contribute in other ways. State governments are taking an active role to engage boomers in what a recent report calls “The Experience Dividend.” For example, in California where the teacher shortage is already near the crisis point, Governor Schwarzenegger and Sherry Lansing, former CEO of Paramount Pictures, launched the EnCorps Teachers Program, a corporate- sponsored recruiting effort to entice aging baby boomers into teaching. The program is modeled on the Transition to Teaching program launched by IBM in 2005, which includes up to $15,000 in subsidies and other corporate support for departing employees who want to take up teaching.
On a much smaller scale, retirees and those getting close to retirement are taking personal initiatives to simultaneously “give back” and continue to fill their lives with meaning. For example, at the urging of colleagues two or three generations younger than ourselves, a number of colleagues and I are currently coaching young leaders in not-for-profit organizations on a pro bono basis to help strengthen both their own personal leadership but also the capabilities of their organizations.
Making this match-making easier, New York City-based Catchafire, now in beta, www.catchafire.org matches professionals who want to volunteer with nonprofits and social enterprises that need their skills. By design, Catchafire projects each require 50 hours or less of flexible volunteer time to complete over less than three months; they are discrete, each with a clearly defined deliverable; and they are individual, or designed to be completed by one skilled professional rather than a team. The matching service is free for volunteers and nonprofits and social enterprises are charged less than 5 percent of the cost that they would normally pay for the professional skills they gain. The organization also helps corporations offer skills-based volunteer opportunities to their employees. Since the soft launch of Catchafire in May, it has matched more than 70 organizations with professionals who have volunteered more than 3,000 hours to provide over $500,000 in services.
These efforts, both large and small, have a triple bottom-line payoff: payoff for volunteers in terms of feeling connected to a worthwhile cause and participating in meaningful relationships with organizations and their employees; for individual employees in terms of their own growth and development; and for the organization overall by strengthening its organizational and leadership capabilities for the next generation.