With record numbers of people reporting symptoms of burnout at the end of 2020, McKinsey have called it an ‘epidemic of stress’ with COVID as the tipping point. The whole world is tired. And as the pandemic has dragged on, thoughts of self-care have turned to increased fatigue and anger .
But things are better. The wait is over for a vaccine, and it’s beginning to be distributed. There has also been a lot of innovation. So, while things are still touch and go, there is hope that it will get better sooner, rather than later. I’ve been 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. 2020 has been a harsh teacher, but it has bestowed upon us powerful lessons on self-care and trust. A crisis is always an opportunity to learn, and here’s what I think we can apply to 2021.
What can we do as individuals to improve our self-care?
Stamina and adrenaline in times of crisis
At the onset of the pandemic, we made drastic changes to the way we worked. These actions, fuelled by adrenaline, was the right response at the time. However, as the pandemic dragged on, adrenaline became the wrong tool for the job — a sprint for what had become a marathon. While adrenaline is useful in dealing with a crisis, it leads to burnout if applied to a long-term problem. Resilience requires stamina, and we need a lot of stamina to make it through 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.
Micro-rituals to restore
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.
Restorative and cognitive breaks
Tell me if this sounds familiar to you: When you take a short break from work, you end up scrolling through the news on your phone or reading articles on different blogs. 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.
How do we as organizations trust our people more?
2020 posed a massive question of trust to many organizations: do we trust our people to do their jobs without them being in the office? Do we trust our employees without having to monitor them?
In the beginning, that answer was “yes”. 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.
Trust your people without monitoring them
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.
Be flexible about meetings
Meetings are both necessary and an energy drain. They help facilitate work and create more work. In 2021, we need to get clever about meetings. Organizations are doing better where leaders are encouraging people to be flexible about how they meet.
In days of Zoom fatigue introduce ‘walking meetings’ in the way you would 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.
Celebrate outcomes, not hours
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.
Friday Pulse can help
Over the last year, I’ve talked about resiliency and wellbeing, and given tips on how to weather the COVID-19 storm. I’m particularly proud of how our clients at Friday Pulse have adapted their workplace and made positive change throughout this crisis. I’ve been amazed at the strategies they’ve adopted, and the steps taken to look after their people.
If you’ve struggled through 2020 and are looking at a bleak 2021, we are continuing to offer free access to companies and teams (50-1,000 employees) for 6 weeks. Get in touch or book a demo. We’d love to help.