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Advancing human sustainability in the age of AI

Legal practices and other organisations can gain a significant competitive edge by embracing ‘human sustainability’ as the influence of artificial intelligence (AI) spreads, writes Daljit Singh.

In short:

  • This article highlights the five key elements to create a sustainable workplace.
  • Law firms are advised to avoid a “legacy mindset centred on extracting value from people”.
  • Harvard and MIT have created a toolkit to help employers foster greater health and wellbeing.

The age of AI will transform the nature of work, the workforce and the workplace, with the transformation presenting opportunities and challenges for people and organisations.

This article focuses on the vital need for advancing ‘human sustainability’ and provides practical advice to enable people and organisations to thrive in the age of AI. It builds on my earlier article in this journal on ‘Human-centric leadership in the age of AI’.

The importance of human sustainability

The 2024 Global Human Capital Trends report from Deloitte Insights highlighted human sustainability as a major trend shaping the rapidly evolving future of work.

It defined human sustainability as the degree to which organisations create value for people as human beings, leaving them with greater health and wellbeing, stronger skills, greater employability, good jobs, opportunities for advancement, progress towards equity, increased belonging and heightened connection to purpose.

The Deloitte report makes a compelling business case for human sustainability and highlights several robust research findings that organisations focusing on human sustainability are able to achieve stronger business results and more effectively future-proof themselves.

The World Economic Forum and the Conference Board have also highlighted human sustainability, with the Conference Board saying that organisational sustainability and talent strategies should be considered incomplete without it.

As human sustainability comes to the fore, legal organisations cannot afford to ignore the impact that their workplaces are having on their people. We know that human sustainability is already a significant challenge for the legal profession, given the global wellbeing crisis in law as reported by the International Bar Association (IBA).

Threats to human sustainability

The Deloitte Insights report highlighted the troubling statistic that only 43% of the respondents to their global survey said that their organisations have left them better off than when they started.

The report discussed several current threats to human sustainability, including:

  • an increase in work stress leading to worse mental health
  • concerns about AI eliminating jobs
  • rapidly evolving skill needs due to AI
  • the impact of the ‘always on’ workplace enabled by digital technology.

The legal profession also faces the additional threat of toxic work culture due to the reported prevalence of bullying and sexual harassment behaviours, as highlighted by the IBA and several national legal associations. My article on ‘A blueprint for developing healthy law firm cultures’ in this journal discussed how to address toxic law firm work cultures.

Organisational talent strategies should include actions to not only mitigate all of the above threats, but also to promote human sustainability, and thereby enable people and businesses to thrive. These strategies should include the development of more sustainable workplaces, and a change in mindset regarding people in organisations.

Developing sustainable workplaces

Chan and Clarke from Infinite Potential, a non-profit think-tank focused on building better workplaces, have developed a helpful framework for developing sustainable workplaces.

The diagram below from Infinite Potential’s State of the Workplace Burnout 2024 report outlines the five essential elements for creating a productive and sustainable workplace.

Legal organisations can use this framework to advance human sustainability – for example, to generate dialogue on what drives workplace sustainability, to assess organisational strengths and weaknesses, and to identify improvement opportunities.

It is critical for legal organisations to collaborate with their people in advancing human sustainability initiatives. This should be a genuine partnership to help co-create the future of work that benefits people and the organisation. For example, by asking people about their:

  • experience of human sustainability in the organisation
  • suggestions for improving human sustainability
  • assessment of progress regarding improvement initiatives.

The Infinite Potential report also highlighted three key psychosocial hazards that play the biggest role in creating burnout:

  1. Job demand: unmanageable workload and/or too few resources to manage workload.
  2. Job control: lack of agency over how, where and when work is done; insufficient involvement in work-related decisions.
  3. Workplace relationships: conflict or unhealthy relationship(s) with supervisor, manager, or co-workers.

Harvard and MIT have jointly developed a web-based toolkit for employers on the design of work to foster greater health and wellbeing. This free toolkit also provides helpful research-based practices for addressing these three important psychosocial hazards.

The Infinite Potential report also highlighted findings that reducing working hours benefits people and organisations through improved wellbeing, retention, quality of work and productivity. It recommended that organisations optimise work hours to enhance wellbeing and performance.

The enormous scope for AI to augment and amplify human capability, and lift productivity, presents legal organisations with an excellent opportunity to redesign jobs and reimagine work practices. For example:

  • redesigning jobs based on an analysis of which tasks are best suited for automation, or a combination of people and AI
  • reimagining work practices by challenging mindsets and practices that result in excessive and unsustainable work hours.

Organisations have to address the ‘always on’ workplace which is adversely affecting health, wellbeing and job satisfaction. Employer inaction has resulted in the ‘Right to Disconnect’ legislation being introduced in several countries, including Australia. Legal organisations should take proactive action here, including:

  • seeking feedback from people regarding ‘always on’ behaviour, and their views on issues, causes and potential solutions
  • developing policy and protocols to address identified issues, including clarity on when people are expected to be available, and the circumstances for exceptions
  • ensuring role-modelling by leaders, including on how they communicate their expectations, and how they work
  • monitoring the nature, incidence and necessity of out-of-hours activity, and acting to ensure alignment with policy and protocols.

Organisations should also invest in the reskilling and upskilling of their workforce to help them succeed in the age of AI, instead of defaulting to external hires. As highlighted by McKinsey, this includes developing people so they can engage in more creative, collaborative and innovative thinking, as AI frees them from the more routine tasks.

Sustainable workplaces are likely to require a significant shift in the collective mindset of leaders for human sustainability initiatives to succeed.

Moving from the extractive to human sustainability mindset

The Deloitte Insights report stated that efforts to prioritise human sustainability are falling short because many organisations are stuck in a legacy mindset centred on extracting value from people, rather than collaborating with them to create a better future for organisations and individuals alike. It said that a human sustainability mindset should replace the extractive mindset.

The table below contrasts the extractive and human sustainability mindsets, based on the Deloitte Insights report and my additional suggestions.

The Extractive Mindset

The Human Sustainability Mindset

Transactional (win-lose) thinking

Transformational (win-win) thinking

People valued as fungible resources

People intrinsically valued as human beings

Maximises value from people

Adds value to people

Minimises investment in people

Strong investment in people

Uses AI to eliminate jobs

Uses AI to create or improve jobs

Limited input from people

Collaborate with people to create the future

Restricts people in fulfilling their potential

Encourages people to fulfil their potential

More focus on work input (hours at work)

Greater focus on work outcomes

Encourages ‘always on’ behaviour

Healthy boundaries around work hours

Wellbeing is a personal issue

Wellbeing is a business issue

Reinforces traditional work practices

Encourages reimagined work practices

We can see that the extractive mindset promotes opportunistic, short-term thinking and actions, with performance being achieved at the expense of people. In contrast, the human sustainability mindset promotes strategic, long-term thinking and actions, enabling people and performance to thrive.

The human sustainability mindset is also consistent with the findings on employee expectations. McKinsey’s research has highlighted that many employers still do not fully understand employee expectations. For example, employers continue to regard compensation as being much more important to employees than wellbeing.

The global wellbeing crisis in the legal profession indicates that the extractive mindset is likely to be the default mindset in many legal organisations. Therefore, moving from the extractive mindset is going to be critical for human sustainability initiatives to succeed in the profession.

Aside from discussing the compelling ‘business case’ for change, legal organisations should also engage with their leaders to explore their prevailing mindset (beliefs and assumptions) regarding human sustainability. Organisations can use a process called ‘vertical growth’ to help their leaders become more aware of their mindset, and how it is driving their behaviour.

The process also enables leaders to challenge and reframe their underlying beliefs and assumptions, to support the move to a more sustainable workplace. Vertical Growth, by Bunting and Lemieux, is an excellent guide for facilitating this mindset and behavioural change, with helpful diagnostic tools, practice, and case studies.

Organisational talent strategy and practices must also support the required mindset and behavioural changes. Key organisational actions here include:

  • ensuring that organisational values reflect a strong commitment to human sustainability
  • including the key elements of human sustainability into the employee value proposition
  • aligning talent policies and practices with human sustainability principles
  • setting clear behavioural expectations and accountability for action
  • recognising, reinforcing and rewarding behaviours supporting human sustainability
  • seeking regular feedback from people, learning and making further improvements.


Human sustainability has emerged as one of the top strategic workforce challenges that all organisations will have to address in the age of AI.

Legal organisations must treat this as a strategic priority, given the threats to human sustainability already being experienced by many of their people.

Visionary and progressive legal organisations will gain a significant competitive edge by building sustainable workplaces that enable their people and business to thrive in the age of AI.

Daljit Singh is the Principal of Transforming Talent. He is a talent management and leadership development expert with more than 30 years of experience working in senior roles with global professional services firms, including KPMG and Baker McKenzie. Daljit is also a Teaching Fellow with the Australian College of Law where he teaches two post-graduate subjects – Workforce of the Future, and Leadership. You can contact him at