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Fight the fatigue that’s killing your team’s productivity

Small periods of recovery time will improve performance.

In the past six months, I have been inundated with requests from leaders about how to increase motivation in themselves and their teams. After further discussion, it becomes clear that the root of the problem isn’t a lack of motivation — it’s fatigue. In just about every training or leadership counseling session I hold, anywhere in the world, I see the impact of fatigue, that overall feeling of tiredness or lack of energy. A CEO snaps at a junior colleague over a relatively small error. A senior executive vents for an hour over nothing in particular. A consulting firm boss pushes junior team members to work 100-hour weeks over unsubstantiated concerns about client engagement. Strong leaders question if they are doing enough, even though they feel they are at the end of their tether.

These are all signs of sustained stress. None of these leaders would normally react this way. But lockdowns and restrictions on leaders’ typical means of relaxation, such as vacations, travel, and socializing, are taking their toll. The same is true for all employees: Long periods of stress and extended hours, without the usual ways of renewing energy, can and will elicit suboptimal, even damaging behaviors. Those behaviors compromise a team’s energy, efficiency, innovation, and ultimately their performance.

A few statistics paint a clear picture:

• More than 80 percent of 1,265 U.S. workers surveyed in June 2020 by Lyra Health and the nonprofit National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions said they had experienced negative emotions associated with poor mental health, with a third reporting clinical anxiety or depression.

• The same survey showed that 65 percent of respondents reported that mental health issues had impacted their ability to work, with 40 percent reporting being close to burnout.

• Data from the 2018 Mental Health Foundation survey of 4,619 people in the U.K. shows similar findings.

If 65 percent of the population is struggling, then roughly seven out of 10 people on your team are struggling. Chances are it’s hurting their performance. When people are faced with that level of stress, their ability to think logically and clearly goes out the window. Their capacity to deal with mistakes or change is compromised. Their creativity dissipates. Their potential to lead with the values your business espouses is shot.

Stress building up

Even before COVID-19, some companies awarded badges of honor to their employees based on how busy they were. But the pandemic has exacerbated the problems brought on by the stress of overwork because we have lost the chance to do activities that provide a welcome break. Much of the downtime provided by the daily commute has been lost (even if sometimes commuting itself was stressful). Being home all day with nothing else to do has meant many office workers are working longer hours. If your home is your office, and you’re always at home, then you’re always at the office. The flexibility has ironically, in many cases, killed the chance to turn off work.

Leaders often shift the blame of overwork onto their clients. I’m not convinced the extra time people put in — or force others to put in — makes clients that much happier. Does knowing you overwork your people make them more likely to buy from you or stay with you or refer you?

How, then, to correct this dynamic? Start by assessing your own patterns to see how you might be adding to the fatigue of your team and others. Do your choices and actions as a leader undermine everyone else’s efficiency? Do they raise the general workload and stress without substantial gains?

Next, challenge what you do and how that effort brings real value, given the very specific goals you are trying to achieve. For example, let’s say you asked your team to produce a detailed report for a client meeting taking place in three days. Do you know how much time that report actually takes to produce? Do you know the complexities involved in gathering the data you asked for? Are you aware of the other projects that your team has in progress? If so, can you reprioritize them? Would your client be pleased to know the pressure you put on your team? And will that report have a substantial effect on your goals for that client meeting? In other words: Are you putting the team’s time, energy, and resources on what brings the greatest returns?

Finally, examine the processes by which work gets completed. These processes, while well-intended and sometimes essential, often consume enormous time, zap motivation, and increase fatigue. Ask your team what is creating the strain. Are there too many layers of review, or is it a lack of communication about what is expected? Are deadlines too short? Or is there a lack of resources? Take steps to resolve the conflicts.

Fostering recovery

According to a large body of research on elite athletes, the secret to sustaining great performance over time is pairing periods of stress with times of recovery. Recovery is any activity that lowers the heart rate and dissipates stress hormones — they bring a sense of calm, generate energy and passion, and result in a sense of joy. Olympic athletes know that taking time to listen to their favorite music, for example, helps them lower their heart rate and recover from an intense workout. Each athlete has his or her own recovery routine. It’s physiological, it’s measurable, and it must be tailored to the individual’s needs.

According to Andrew Macdonald, founder of PQ, which measures the performance of executives and athletes, seeking answers to the root causes of stress and fatigue and building in the appropriate recovery distinguishes the best, most competitive Olympic teams from the average. Indeed, in general, recovery drives performance, creativity, collaboration, and engagement.

For most people, sleep is an important component of recovery. As a baseline, managers should try to get enough themselves and encourage their teams to do the same; eight hours is best. But a change to sleep habits alone is rarely enough to cure burnout — executives also need to build in moments of recovery during waking hours. Leaders need to ask each person on their team what would help them perform at their optimal level, then give them permission and encouragement to do those activities.

Although taking moments for recovery is challenging in a busy work environment and in our always-on world, think about the gains it could achieve in motivation and performance. A survey of 1,600 North American workers by cleaning products manufacturer Tork, supervised and analyzed by KRC Research  and the University of Southern California, revealed that taking a real a lunch break improved engagement, job satisfaction, and efficiency. When we engage in things such as daydreaming, reading something enjoyable, listening to music, and taking a leisurely walk, we increase performance. This cycle of intense work followed by a break is how our brains work best. Elite athletes have known this for decades and practice it with rigorous discipline.

When we engage in things such as daydreaming, reading something enjoyable, listening to music, and taking a leisurely walk, we increase performance.

A study reported in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that specific types of micro-breaks improved workers’ end-of-day strain. I recently talked to a senior executive who had developed the habit of listing one good thing about the day in a journal every evening. For her, this simple practice relaxed her before going to sleep. Another executive found that taking a coffee break and reading a nonwork book for 15 minutes before going home at the end of the workday was all he needed to have the energy to care for his young children.

Here is a sample of things I have seen generate recovery that can be done in 15-minute bites: Read a magazine, listen to music, eat lunch anywhere other than your desk (without doing anything else at the same time), have a quiet coffee alone with no phone or emails, check in with a family member, read a book to your children, take a walk or just stand outside, play a game, draw, imagine, take photographs from different angles, read a poem, and even dance if you have some privacy. Of course, popular outlets such as meditation, yoga, and mindfulness also help — but only if you enjoy the process. And not everyone does.

Not convinced? Try it out. Take five team members and have each describe the activities that could help them de-stress during the workday. Actively encourage them to do one of those things every day for a week. Set a 30-minute time limit (if you must), but it’s best to leave the timing up to the team members themselves. Do it yourself, too. Measure the impact on performance, accuracy, creativity, engagement, and compassion. If you don’t see positive results, call me — but I won’t be expecting your call.

Wanda T. Wallace

Dr. Wanda T. Wallace, managing partner of Leadership Forum, coaches, facilitates, and speaks on improving leadership through better conversations. She hosts the weekly radio show and podcast “Out of the Comfort Zone” and is the author of You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise.

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