According to wellness expert Jennifer Moss, the keynote speaker at our recent webinar Preventing Burnout in the New Future of Work, the pandemic has led to a huge spike in workplace burnout, worsening issues in the workplace that already existed (overwork, stress, lack of control), almost like “lighting a match to a workforce in drought.”
And yet, it has also provided us with an opportunity to intentionally redesign the future of work in a positive way. “We have the power to make small changes every single day to make this new future of work positive, and healthy, and happy and productive,” she says.
The award-winning author of bestseller “Unlocking Happiness at Work” and soon-to-be-released “The Burnout Epidemic,” Jennifer led the audience through a whirlwind talk highlighting the many causes of burnout, the ways to recognize it and the steps for combatting it in the workplace.
The key, she says, is trying to stick with meaningful, daily actions to train your brain, much like exercising your body to stay fit: “A lifetime of tiny habits being reinforced in our day-to-day effort.”
Tiny habits, big changes
Over the coming months, we’ll highlight the causes of burnout in greater depth, along with ways to recognize it in ourselves and each other. For now, we’re sharing Jennifer’s small, practical exercises that we can do every day in our teams and as leaders to create a network effect, changing the dynamic inside of our workplace one meaningful step at a time.
Steps for everyone—employers, leaders and employees
1. Ten-week gratitude exercise
Research has shown that 10 weeks of focusing on what you have and thanking someone meaningfully can improve your immune system, lower your blood pressure, improve your sleep and make you feel more outgoing, more forgiving and less lonely. And all this after 10 weeks of just one intervention!
- For 10 weeks, set a recurring “thank you” meeting in your calendar for 2:49 p.m. every Friday, the time when researchers say we mentally check out of work each week. Send a short message to thank someone meaningfully for a specific thing they did to improve your life that week. For example, if they gave a great presentation, you could say, “I loved what you were talking about and took two of your suggestions to my team. We’re already seeing great results.” It may take you 30 seconds to write that email, but it is so much more meaningful because it says you care about what they care about and you paid attention.
2. Focus on only one or two personal relationships
These days, we don’t have the bandwidth to maintain all our former relationships, so Jennifer recommends focusing on just one or two people around whom you can be your true self. Nurture those relationships and have open, frank conversations with these people. This gives you a rest from being “always on” with so many digital friends.
3. Adjust expectations, avoid perfectionism
According to Jennifer, in a crisis like this, we should be congratulating ourselves for getting up and getting dressed, let alone achieving all our goals and doing everything perfectly. Goals and metrics are still important, but the current environment makes them much harder to achieve. Think long term and make only the most consequential things your day-to-day priority.
- Avoid knocking yourself for not achieving the same amount of work as before and not doing it perfectly.
- Assess the importance of a task by reflecting on your “deathbed regrets”—would you worry that you didn’t send that email to a client at 11 p.m. or is it more important that you didn’t have time to foster relationships because you were sending emails at 11 p.m.?
Steps for employers and leaders
1. Create an open communication channel
Employees are understandably anxious about returning to the workplace and the future of work. As a leader, it’s important you help allay their fears:
- Be honest and authentic about what the plan is; communicate regularly and avoid radio silence, which causes stress.
- Make yourself available. Conduct a weekly Ask Me Anything (AMA), where employees can literally ask anything on their mind. Instead of an impersonal email to everyone, tell your team that you want to know what their concerns are, and will do your best to answer them. Every week.
2. Develop empathy
Empathy is the most important skill to have as a leader as it improves decision-making, team building and so much more. The average adult says “I’m fine” 14 times a week but means it only 19% of the time, which leads to a host of problems.
- Ask your team members “Are you okay?” more often and listen to their answers.
- As a leader, when someone says they’re fine and they don’t seem so, dig deeper and ask if they’re really okay. Show that you care about the response.
- Practice the Golden Rule 2.0: “Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.” That means actively listening, and creating programs, communications, policies, infrastructure and plans in the image of the people we’re serving, not in the image of ourselves.
3. Address burnout in weekly check-ins
What if the pandemic is endemic? Jennifer recommends we live right now and address burnout, rather than waiting for the pandemic to end and some kind of future way of living to appear.
- Set collaborative/team goals, which reduces burnout significantly compared to having only individual metrics and individual goals; discuss these goals with your team.
- Every week, discuss non-work-related issues, asking just three questions:
- How was this week?
- What were the highs and lows? (It can be personal, professional, anything)
- What can I do to make next week a bit easier? What can we do for each other to make this next week easier? For example, maybe it’s bringing you coffee in the morning, maybe we meet for a coffee at a distance if you’re lonely, etc.
4. Take a regular digital detox and make sure your team does, too
We don’t need to be on video every time we talk to each other (being on camera causes stress). An old-fashioned phone call is fine too—even better if it’s a walking phone call.
- Take regular 10-minute breaks throughout each day. Get up and away from your computer.
- Set times in your calendar for rest—our rest deficit is majorly affecting our well-being. Try to get the seven types of rest we all need for mental well-being.
- Spend 20 minutes at the start of the day technology-free. Have a shower (showers have gone down by 30% during the pandemic), avoiding looking at your devices, get dressed, head out the door and take a walk (a “fake commute”).
- Don’t eat in front of a screen.
5. Re-evaluate all those meetings
The number of meetings has increased by 24% over the pandemic. Are they all necessary? While we all like to stay connected with remote teams, before scheduling a meeting, ask yourself:
- Is this meeting necessary?
- Does it have to be a video call?
- Can it be shorter?
- Can we turn off our cameras?
- Who needs to be there?
- Can we do a walk and talk instead?
6. Meet in person as often as possible
People need in-person connections. Many of us have never even met our team members in person, and existing workplace friendships have been taxed during the pandemic, which is hard. Jennifer says we’re tribal, and if we’re going to survive as a species, we need to mimic each other’s behaviours and look each other in the eyes. “If we didn’t do that in the past, we’d be eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger on the savannas.”
- Even if you are a fully remote team, try to meet up at least once a quarter.
- If you’re a hybrid team, try meeting in the office on the same days.
- For those who are anxious about in-person meetings, take it slowly, meeting for coffee before scheduling a full day at the office.
- When team building, it’s about depth of relationships, not breadth of relationships. Encourage your team members to cultivate at least one good friend at work because it will reduce their stress, increase their satisfaction and create a network effect of healthy productive relationships inside your workplace.
Steps for employees
1. Discuss your workload with your leader
Your leader might not know how overworked you are, especially if you work remotely. If you feel overworked, follow these steps:
- Spend a couple of weeks journaling how your workday goes, assessing the following:
- How do you determine what is priority? And what’s urgent?
- How often do you switch a priority need for an urgent need?
- How much time do you take for self-care?
- How late are you answering emails?
- How early are you taking meetings?
- Are there things that could be done more efficiently if you had the proper training/support/tools?
- Present a data-filled summary to your leader in a factual way (keep in mind, leaders are exhausted, too). Confirm you’re aligned on priorities, urgent needs and upcoming projects, and then determine what should be downgraded and upgraded as far as urgent needs.
Note: Jennifer says when she has tried this intervention inside of organizations, they find a 27% reduction in burnout and a lot of time returned in a workday, just by cataloguing what we’re doing, having conversations with our leaders around priorities, making sure we’re aligned.
According to Jennifer, practicing even one or two of these actions can make a huge difference in improving our well-being and preventing burnout. “We can’t fix the pandemic. But we can do little micro-targeted things every single day to try to have some control inside of this world that is filled with uncertainty. Even one small thing matters.”