Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive officer of Lloyds Banking Group Plc, looks on during a panel … [+]
Lloyds boss Antonio Horta-Osorio has been speaking out about mental health issues this week. Having taken time off for stress himself, he has brought a new perspective to Lloyds, demonstrating to other large companies that compassion and empathy might be a more successful strategy than replacing staff who need to recover.
Burnout is a huge problem in the modern day workforce and it disproportionately affects neurominorities. However, it is simply not possible for us all to take a week to recuperate in a lovely spa by the sea when this happens, neither can we fix all of our mental health problems with mindfulness and juice cleanses. I find myself somewhat annoyed at well-being programs that add things to my to-do list in order for me to manage my stress! 10 mins of sitting and staring at waves isn’t going to suddenly make me more efficient or replace the missing colleague whose work I’ve picked up. Individual solutions to structural problems is gaslighting – we find ourselves feeling at fault for not being able to cope. Finding a sustainable work pattern and proper resourcing is the real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, not fads and panaceas. Employers can encourage this with HR policy and culture.
Manage By Output, Not Input
Flexible attendance can be as simple as allowing a few half days or a work from home day at the end of a big project. Sometimes getting to sleep-in, or work in your pajamas with the cat on your lap helps you to reset your state after weeks of working late or high pressure situations. Perhaps some of your team are suited to working from home on a regular basis or could start their day earlier or later based on their travel and home life needs? Do you have roles within your company that are suited to job sharing or that could perhaps be part time? Many of these things will also create access to the workplace for those who cannot manage a rigid schedule.
It is easy to worry that by liberally allowing for days off and flexible schedules people will take advantage. My experience is that these people are a minority, and usually such behavior points to a wider lack of fit with their role. There are more people for whom disability or ill health requires flexibility on hours and attendance. By protecting those people we’ll see a larger return on performance than if we focus on cracking down on the odd truant. I had this argument in full recently when I posted on Linked In outrage at my children getting certificates for 100% attendance at school – simply by luck of having no ill health or disability. 65 comments! Encouraging presenteeism in schools will not teach the next generation about healthy work.
My neurodiverse employees frequently say to me that they couldn’t stay at work if it wasn’t for the flexible hours policy. A word of warning though – make sure everyone can do delayed send on emails, so that in those flexible hours we don’t bombard each other at opposite ends of the day!
Issues with noise, lighting, temperature etc. can be a disturbance for everyone. Consider having to spend your whole working week with an intense headache, or pay attention in a meeting while something is making a loud repetitive noise in the background. Tolerating a difficult environment uses up your patience and emotional energy making it harder to work at your best and leading to stress and exhaustion – more so with neurominorities who typically have some sort of sensory sensitivity. Avoiding sensory overwhelm reduces the need to take time off to recover.
Cancel Corporate Commando Culture
Feeling like you can get all of your work done to a high standard within your scheduled hours may sound like a dream but consider, this is actually how you demonstrate competence at your role. Only being able to deliver the job by working 70 hours a week may be indicator of being in over your head, not your commitment! A short term bump due to staff changes or gnarly project, sure, but day in day out and we have a problem with resources, role design or person fit – it’s an early indicator of a crisis looming. Mindfulness classes won’t make up for skills gaps or inadequate headcount in your team.
Sometimes Overwork Is Necessary, But Recovery Is Possible
I had a serious episode of burnout in 2018 and 2019 after finishing my PhD thesis, whilst running a company, filming The Employables for A&E and parenting preteens – no surprise! Unlike Antonio Horta-Osoria I didn’t take any additional time off to recover, which was only possible because of positive company culture and having a restful home environment.
Everyone in my company has six weeks paid leave per year and flexible hours options. I worked to my own schedule and none of my colleagues complained, they supported me to rest and expressed praise when I said I was leaving early to take time to cook for the family. We have a dog in Head Office now who encourages us to take little walking breaks away from our desks. She is adorable!
I also took some serious downtime at home. My kids didn’t complain when I spent our family holiday decoupling my energy levels from caffeine and just lay in the sun with a book. I felt so guilty that I cried one day because I was too tired to go for a walk! It took about 10 months for me to recover to normal levels of engagement and enthusiasm. I realize with humility that if my children had been younger or if anyone in the family had additional needs I would have needed to take time off work.
As I started to recover, I DID indulge in yoga, got back to running and drank healthy juices but those things wouldn’t have prevented the overwork. In fact, I got to the point where being told to try mindfulness was actually like red rag to a bull – it felt like being told to calm down! And as the meme goes, “never in the history of calming down has anyone who has been told to calm down actually calmed down.” It was patronizing.
I’m not sorry I hit those achievements. I’m proud of my PhD which I passed with no corrections. The Employables was an amazing docuseries. Growing my business has helped thousands of people achieve their potential. I like working in peaks and troughs. But in my renewed vigor after a prolonged period of demand I am much more mindful of pace and much more vocal about role modelling downtime ongoing. I hope I am a better boss for the experience and that I am creating a more efficient environment for my staff. A business that is only operating because people are continually working frenetic hours is not a sustainable business at all.