By Joanna Howes, Leadership and Performance Coach and Founder and CEO of The Change Creators.
The conversations around work and stress have dramatically changed over the last year. It has been most marked by the shift in language that people are using. No longer are we talking about ‘pivoting’ or ‘survive and thrive’ instead, ‘fatigue’, ‘overwhelm’, ‘stress’ and ‘burnout’ are the buzzwords.
This shift in conversation marks a move from putting the professional impact front and centre, to discussing the personal toll this period of time has taken on the individual. It is short-sighted to not recognise how undeniably interlinked the personal and professional effects are. Businesses need to shift their focus to solving this, the top reasons underpinning burnout, and why most of the new initiatives leaders are trying are falling short.
People are questioning if the work they do is really what they want to be doing. The ever-increasing stress, overwhelm and anxiety is bringing ‘the meaning of life’ into question for a lot of people.
Mental health needs to be talked about
Covid aside, stress is the number one cause of disease and has unfortunately been the currency for a lot of high-performing teams well before the pandemic. So, over the last 15 months, it has been heartening to see discussions around mental health become woven into the narratives of leadership and company policy. This by-product of the pandemic is an overall positive move in business.
However, for those who are already up against it managing childcare alongside full-time hours, increased workload due or increased levels of anxiety (which is a normal response by the brain to extended periods of uncertainty), they are simply not able to take advantage of added initiatives. And for those that do take part, these offers are good painkillers and most definitely a step in the right direction, but they are not going to heal the root cause of the problem.
Lead from the top
Not only that, the big worry is that the leaders are so stressed and overwhelmed themselves that they can’t be there for their team in the way they want to be. They recognise they are falling short, but they simply don’t have the time, nor the headspace to do anything differently right now. In trying to keep their heads above the water and keep their team in a functioning state, the consequence is that everybody feels like they’re at best, treading water, and at worst, sinking.
When the impact is affecting leadership level, we see a dangerous loop emerging. Teams are struggling to adapt to changes, they turn to their leadership team for guidance, and they see their experiences being reflected right back at them. Certainly, there is a levelling that happens when different ranks in business are united behind a shared experience, not ideal though when the experience is a negative one that impacts personal and professional success.
Businesses truly have a responsibility to help. Not only will a team who are struggling with overwhelm or motivation be more likely to be affected by anxiety and low mood, they will also struggle to make decisions, stay focused and perform well. Burnout is the word of the moment and suggests that teams and their leaders are not simply under-performing or struggling, they’re at a point of crisis.
Here are some quick tips on how you can remove unhealthy stress
Utilise mindfulness practices – it is proven that taking 60 seconds out every hour to do a slow stretch, yawn or perform a conscious breath improves focus and motivation – In your meetings, start or end with a stretch or a yawn. Have fun with it and don’t be embarrassed, you and your team will see the benefits if you make this part of your daily workings.
Get to know your team individually – We are all different and need different things to help us be okay. Find out what each of your team members needs are and let them be heard. For some of them it will be a simple feedback call once a week, others will want to have fun to release stress and some people will just want to be left alone to be able to focus on their work. It is not a one size fits all model. Know your team and then you can manage your time better to be where they need you to be.
Don’t let your language get too negative – If you as the leader are using pressure language like ‘it’s a nightmare’, it will increase your stress and your team’s stress as it releases cortisol, which will affect their ability to come up with a solution. Instead, choose a phrase like, ‘it’s an inconvenience’ – this will not only make you smile (as it’s a bit daft), but it defuses the intensity. This allows you and your team to think of how you are all going to support each other to find a solution forward.
Finally, ask yourself: What is your company valuing the most? As this will be impacting your people. If you value profit first (you may not say you do, but your actions speak louder) then take a moment to re-organise your values to put compassion, joy and peace at the top. Notice how this influences your decisions and actions, then notice how quickly you see a difference in your people.