With record numbers of people reporting symptoms of burnout at the end of 2020, self-care has become a top priority. McKinsey have called it an ‘epidemic of stress’ with COVID as the tipping point. The whole world is tired. Yet, in all the fatigue and anger, there has been a lot of innovation.
At Friday Pulse, we’re humbled to accompany tech businesses, global giants, the NHS, schools and NGOs through a year that has tested their ability to pivot multiple times to survive.
Here we sum up what we’ve learned, and what we think organizations should hold onto post-pandemic. A crisis is always an opportunity, and there are a few lessons we’ve picked up this year on self-care and trust that we can apply to 2021.
When the pandemic first hit, we made adrenaline-fuelled changes to the way we work. When the pandemic dragged on, the adrenaline response was the wrong tool for the job — a sprint for what had become a marathon. While adrenaline is powerful in dealing with a crisis, it leads to burnout if applied to a long-term problem. Long-term resilience requires stamina, and we need a lot of stamina to handle a problem like a pandemic.
We’re only able to create stamina by restoring and re-energizing. There are micro-opportunities that we can take advantage of to restore ourselves in our daily lives. These small moments are a chance to create new habits that will sustain us.
To combat eroding work-life balance, establish micro-rituals to restore yourself. These can be end of day rituals like turning off the work computer, hugging a loved one or hiding your phone until the next day. Without a commute to mark the end of the workday, we need to establish our own rituals to transition out of work into the rest of our lives.
When you take a short break from work, you end up scrolling through the news on your phone or reading articles on different blogs. Sound familiar...? Unfortunately, these ‘breaks’ do nothing to restore us or build our stamina. Our brains are still active. It’s still mental work. _When we switch from one task to another task — it’s still working — you’re just switching from ‘work work’ to ‘life work’. _
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for helping us restore. It kicks in when we are still and breathing deeply, which is part of why meditation is so powerful in wellbeing. Yet it cannot restore us when we keep ourselves occupied with a thousand distractions. Maintaining high levels of focus has a cost on our bodies — drawing on vitamins, minerals and energy reserved for other functions.
Unplugging from the digital world for a few minutes is the best way to take a break. You might go outside, get some fresh air or move your body differently. It helps to get out into nature to reduce anxiety and help us feel calm.
It also helps to take a break before we think we need one. Studies have shown we’re bad at making decisions about our wellbeing when we need rest. When we’re all wrapped up in work, it can feel easier to keep going rather than give up. When we most need a break, we least want it.
Yet when we go back to work after a restorative break, we’re sharper than we were before. Through creating a different energy in the body, we create a different energy in the mind. And this is how we find our stamina.
For many organizations, 2020 came down to a question of trust: do we trust our people to do their jobs without them physically being in the office? Can we trust our employees without constant monitoring?
Often that answer was a forced “yes” — especially at the beginning. Employers had no choice but to let their people work on their own terms. But, some companies have reined back that trust and reverted to the way things were pre-COVID. This strategy may offer some comfort in the short-term – especially for command-and-control styles of leadership — but will, ultimately, undo culture and performance in the near future.
The pandemic has taught us people can effectively work from home while retaining productivity. Our collective consciousness about what’s possible for flexible working has fundamentally shifted. Companies must make concessions for remote work; otherwise, employees will find new employers that have.
Trusting people can feel like a leap of faith to leaders. Because of the brain’s negativity bias, we don’t think of all the people we have successfully trusted. Instead, we focus on the people that have broken our trust.
When companies trust flexible working, it’s a nurturing feeling for employees. Social ambiguity (like the kind we have in a workplace without trust) is difficult for the brain to manage; it causes stress, anxiety and depression. In the absence of ambiguity, where we feel flexible working is culturally celebrated, it’s much easier to get on with what we need to do.
Meetings are both necessary and an energy drain. They help facilitate work and create more work. We need to get clever and intentional about meetings in 2021. Organizations are doing better where leaders are encouraging people to be flexible about how they meet.
In days of Zoom fatigue, introduce ‘walking meetings’ - take a phone call while on a walk. Where possible, set meeting free days or half days to encourage people to progress their projects. And signal how bad it is for people to bounce from Zoom to Zoom. It’s not okay for colleagues to stay glued to one spot on the sofa, with a total step count of 200 for the day.
It’s challenging to switch from a productivity-based business model to an outcomes-based practice. However, the transition is easier when you reflect and celebrate successes. Assign ownership of projects to specific team members and trust them to deliver. During weekly meetings, encourage colleagues to celebrate their achievements. It doesn’t matter how big or small; it helps people to see how far they’ve come.
As a result, teams become increasingly outcomes-focused – celebrating milestones and accomplishments. This kind of energy is contagious and self-sustaining.