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The Tip of the Iceberg: Systems Thinking

by Megan Pharo ASEBP | November 14 2019

It’s been 22 years since the classic movie, Titanic, was released. I used to watch it back when it was split onto two different VHS tapes—yes…I said VHS! I enjoyed watching the first half of teenage heart-throb, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kate Winslet’s romantic tale, but I’d avoid the second half of the disaster story when the Titanic struck the iceberg that ultimately sank the ship.

Icebergs are more than just part of a tragic love story, as it turns out. They’re often used to explain systems thinking too! When we look at a challenge, there may only be a small amount of information available, like an iceberg’s tip, with a large portion of the picture hidden or not readily seen at the surface. Like the Titanic, not anticipating the full picture of the iceberg (or system) will have a big impact on the outcome of your planning. Let’s look at how this influences your work as a wellness champion within the education sector.

To ‘Berg or Not to ‘Berg?

We can look at workplace wellness from the iceberg lens too. Each school jurisdiction’s policies, procedures, strategies and initiatives play a role in fostering a safe and supportive workplace that positively influences employee health, just as each staff member within a workplace contributes to their own well-being and how they interact with their colleagues. All of these factors work together to tell a larger story, which is where systems thinking comes into play! Using systems thinking when approaching a workplace challenge can help you to see the bigger picture and better inform your planning and strategies.

Breaking it Down

The iceberg model for systems thinking is commonly broken into four levels:

  1. Event level. Identify the problem we observe.
  2. Pattern level. Consider all patterns or trends leading up to the problem we’re trying to solve.
  3. Structure level. Think about what may be causing this pattern (e.g. the built environment or policies).
  4. Mental level. Recognize the attitudes, beliefs, morals, expectations and values at play.

What Does your ‘Berg Look Like? 

Here’s an example of how to apply this to the work you do within your workplace:

  1. Event. Staff feel a lack of social connection at work.
  2. Patterns. Staff feel they only have generic small-talk instead of deeper conversations that help people gel in the workplace.
  3. Structures. The physical spaces don’t always offer opportunity for social connection (e.g. a lack of comfortable seating and inviting meeting places).
  4. Mental. The mindset of going to work to do a job, not to socialize.

A Few Tips

Using systems thinking doesn’t have to be complex when planning for your workplace wellness initiatives.

Here are a few tips (of the iceberg) to help apply systems thinking in your workplace:

  • Do an organizational scan. Look at what policies and initiatives are already in place that impact employee well-being. Look at the organizational environment and how this impacts employees’ behaviours and actions. Be sure to review policies and practices related to protecting employees’ psychological health and safety and their wellness too.
  • Engage employees. Involve employees in the conversation, learn what their unique challenges are and what’s contributing to these challenges. Understand what the barriers are for employees. To do this, try hosting a focus group, use your wellness champions to have conversations with staff, provide a comment box in a common staff area or consider using a survey.
  • Involve employees in the solution. Use tips from this blog to support how to have these types of conversations or check out this blog for information on how to make wellness matter.
  • Start small. Sometimes small changes can have a huge impact. Consider looking at what’s already in place and use this as a leverage point for planning. Sometimes it's about making a small tweak to what already exists versus having to start with a brand new idea or initiative.
  • Evaluate and adjust. Monitor how your initiative is going, adjust as needed and encourage feedback from colleagues along the way. Check out this Sandbox resource for ideas on how to set goals for your initiative.

Remember, systems thinking is about focusing on everything leading up to an event versus isolating the event on its own. Using systems thinking can help create a sustainable solution. Engaging individuals from all levels of the organization to understand how the different departments work together and work independently will help successfully implement a wellness initiative in your workplace. Acknowledging that there are going to be parts of the system that sometimes cannot be changed is important to be aware of to anticipate how they’ll impact your initiative and influence behaviours. Like the iceberg in Titanic, imagine if they had known what was underneath the surface all along?

And don’t get me started on having enough lifeboats for Leo and Kate!

Megan Pharo

A former dancer (and current klutz), Megan’s an ASEBP workplace wellness consultant with a passion for mental health and wellness. This self-professed 'dessert enthusiast' has many talents, including the ability to look at you with only one eye at a time. Sadly, she can’t seem to keep a proper eye on her office plants—they just keep dying! Maybe someday she’ll find her green thumb. Eye on the prize, Megs!