As we head into the new year, it’s a good time to think about how to face the challenges ahead. While the blunt force trauma of the pandemic has ebbed, we are still facing a lot of uncertainty. The war in Ukraine rages on, markets remain shaky, supply shortages and disruptions are more the norm than the exception. The (very narrow) positive is that we have learned to work in an entirely different way, as our short-term adaptations ushered in a new definition of workplace. And many of us reconsidered what is truly important to us and made changes in our professional and personal choices. But we have paid the price with an enormous increase in our stress levels. In the UK, 74% of adults reported in a survey this year that they felt ‘unable to cope’ at some point due to high stress. For those who run large organisations, one thing to focus on in the new year is how to support teams, especially those at the middle levels who oversee many people in the day-to-day operations. Mid-level managers not only must respond upwards but manage those who report to them, and they are translating strategic decisions into execution. They are also moderating the health of their team, including mental health. As well as their own. That’s a lot, especially in our current social and economic climate.
What can executive teams do to support their self-care in the workplace?
Self-care should exist – openly and consistently — in the workplace. Self-care is only now beginning to emerge beyond a feel-good, at-home notion of scented candles or nature sounds. Thankfully, it is being taken more and more seriously as a critical part of good mental health. We are all recovering from the worst days of the pandemic, while at the same time politics continue to be far more polarized. Add to that the pressure of the holidays, which can bring its own stresses, more familiar but no less weighty. None of that even touches the day-to-day obligations of the workplace. Midlevel managers in global organisations often oversee anywhere from dozens to hundreds of people and have to deal with the fatigue and burnout of stressed-out employees. Self-care at work means both recognising how much strain most employees are under (work-related or otherwise), and the commitment from C-suite decisionmakers to help managers support their teams.
What does self-care look like in the workplace? First of all, just the recognition that stress levels are so much higher these days can create space for a dialogue at work. Second, a commitment to prioritizing self-care resources at the workplace in ways that are easily accessible and regularly promoted creates a self-care culture. Some of that can be in the form of policy changes, like more flexible work hours, hybrid work arrangements or more generous mental health day programmes. It can also mean providing access to online resources, even something as simple as subidised subscriptions to apps like Calm, which offer five- and ten-minute meditation sessions that can easily fit into a workday as quick respite. But it can also mean reconsidering your culture and dismantling an organisation structure that has a top-down authoritative dynamic. Those changes can create an environment that creates more autonomy for midlevel managers, including being more response to their team’s specific needs, and feeling comfortable challenging the way things are done to create room for more self-care.
Even better: get under the root cause of the stressors. In addition to recognising stress and offering support to manage it, is to address the workplace-based causes of it. Companies cannot change the macro-level dynamics like war or the pandemic or inflation that are the source of so much stress. Nor can they alleviate deeply personal level stressors that are individual and private. But we spend the majority of our weekdays at work (physically or virtually) and that is where executive teams can try to mitigate some of the stressors. As mentioned before, the way we work changed rapidly in response to the pandemic. And understandably, some of those changes had to be rolled out suddenly, and with little planning. But a new or increased transition to work-based technological platforms like Slack, or videoconferencing solutions like Zoom, was likely more difficult for some workers. Create an opportunity for more formalised training for those who want it. Similarly, some employees have looked for new ways of working that require less time on the job, and employers should create forums that make it comfortable to broach this subject. On the other hand, inflation and other economic drivers mean some workers are happy to take on more work or greater responsibility. That also should be an invited conversation. The point here is not to gather a few people in a room and solve it from the top, but invite your managers to raise the sources of the various concerns.
The point is to meet your leaders where they are: let them report back to you what they hear and what they need.
The new year always bring some optimism for positive change. In the U.S., eighty percent of those surveyed reported workplace stress. Now is a good time to encourage your team leaders to articulate how you can better support them, and recognise the stress of others that they may carry. Give leaders tools to support others to make everyone feel more heard going forward. We don’t know what next year will bring, so planning for specific events is less realistic than planning for uncertainty. That means providing a space for self-care and transparent communication, so that whatever the new year might bring, we face it solidly together.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.