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Team building

Coaching corner: 8 ways to beat workplace exhaustion

Published 19 July 2021 in Team building • 7 min read

In our new regular feature, we offer expert guidance on how to handle stresses and strains in the workplace thrown up by the pandemic. 

 

In normal times, Nick, in his role as head of procurement, had regular in-person meetings with his country CEO and other regional directors. He worked long hours. He traveled regularly. Yet, now, with no travel and more time for family, he feels more exhausted than he ever did before.  

Then there’s Joan, a director of loans for a bank, and boss to a team of 30, who used to spend two days each week abroad. She flew from London to a Scandinavian city for meetings on Mondays, an emerging market (usually Turkey) on Wednesdays. On Tuesdays, she met with her direct reports. Thursday and Friday were dedicated to focused workAll of this was while simultaneously managing her young family. Sounds exhausting, right? And yet, 18 months into the pandemic, with all of her usual travel suspended, she says: “I am so tired.” Her team members, all still working remotely, are overstretched. She can tell that they are afraid to ask for help – and yet she knows they need it. She says that managing each individuals needs has taken its toll on her. 

I hear variations on the above themes in almost every coaching conversation I lead. The whole world seems exhausted by new challenges both at home and at work. 

The day after Adam Grant wrote about “languishing” in the New York Times, several clients sent me the article stating that this word captures their mood. They could relate to the feeling of “blah” – trying to get things done but lacking energy, motivation, and focus. A typically energetic banking executive who lives by her “To Do” lists said: “I stare at my list, knowing it is incomplete, but cannot figure out what is missing. Even so, I don’t know where to start to have impact.” 

People are working longer hours and are depleted from all of the virtual meetings. In its 2021 Work Trends Index, Microsoft found that high productivity is masking an exhausted workforce. An engineering director based in the Netherlands, leading a team of 60 people , used to spend  two hours a day commuting. Now he spends these two hours in front of his computer, and without the boundary between work and home, after the kids are in bed, he logs back on for another one or two hours. His wife does the same. They wake up the next day and start all over again. 

The last 18 months have tested everyone’s resilience. We have experienced so much change, and the future remains uncertain. Will we continue to work from home, or are we going back to the office? What does a hybrid environment mean for my people and me? If I remain at home, will I be invisible and derail my career? Do I need to commute again? What happens if one of my direct reports does not want to come back to the office?  

Overshadowing all these concerns is the potential impact of the Delta variant and other future mutations of the virus and questions about whether the vaccines will be effective against them.  

Pervasive worries combined with continuous changes are exhausting. Most people and businesses thrive with a certain level of predictability and stability, and today there is very little of that. 

Through my conversations with leaders, I’ve seen some consistent patterns in how cumulative exhaustion is impacting work. 

 

Delayed decision-making 

In coaching sessions, leaders are sharing their struggles with decision-making, with around half reporting that they are delaying important decisions. When people feel stuck, have little energy, or are stressed, decisions feel harder. Leaders share that they are fearful of how their choices will adversely impact people, acknowledge that they have less information in the virtual world than before on which to base decisions, and are not clear about what work will look like in six months.  

However, when I ask my clients, “If you had no restrictions right now, what would you do?” they have definite responses. In other words, they know what their “right” answers are. For one client, it was changing a project lead. For another, it was discontinuing a product line. While decisions are hard, indecisiveness based on fear of making a mistake exacerbates exhaustion as the delays undercut their sense of competence. Not deciding also harmed the team – it left people struggling in their positions or dealing with the uncertain future. This also consumes energy leaving people feeling depleted. 

 

Not asking for help 

At the beginning of the pandemic, leaders spent time actively checking in with their teams, asking if people were ok. There was a sense that “we were all in this together.” Now, there is an assumption that we should have learned how to cope. In a recent group coaching session, executives expressed the social pressure to show that they have everything under control. When the unspoken message is that you should be stoic in the face of challenges, it is hard to be vulnerable.  

As a result, people are not seeking out advice on both personal and work issues. They are struggling alone longer, which may be contributing to the record numbers of burnouts many organizations are experiencing. If you cannot ask your boss for help, you will likely not advocate for your team or secure the resources you need.  If your peer cannot ask you for help, there is less collaboration and decreased efficiency. If your team cannot ask you for support, at best, they are struggling, and at worst, they are at risk for failure or burnout. If you cannot ask your team for support, you are modeling a go-it-alone, stiff-upper-lip attitude. 

Emotions are contagious. Positive energy generates more positive energy.

Feeling guilty about thriving 

Some of my clients are doing well. But when they tell me they are doing well, it has a confessional tone. They know people who are suffering, have lost a job, have died, or been seriously ill from COVID-19, and so are uncomfortable revealing that they are doing well. A year ago, Marie accepted a stretch assignment: she was promoted to lead a trading unit of an energy company. The unit she was taking over was notorious for being hard to manage. She is proud of how many personal risks she has taken this year and is seeing positive results. Yet her boss is too busy to notice, 18 months of working from home has isolated her from her peers, and some of her friends are struggling in their roles. Therefore, she finds it hard to share her success. Marc, an HR professional, is proud that he was able to launch a completely new program virtually. Given how some of his colleagues are suffering from Zoom fatigue, he is reluctant to widely share what he has done.  

Not being able to share these positive experiences and feelings has a negative impact. Emotions are contagious. Positive energy generates more positive energy. Critically, if we are not talking about what is working, we are not harnessing the learning that could be applied to new areas. This lack of positivity is also draining. It is hard to be innovative or ask your teams to look at things in new ways when the environment is monotone or constantly negative. 

 

People are more easily triggered 

I am hearing two versions of people overreacting in the workplace. The first is that clients are telling me, “I can’t believe I said that. I flew off the handle.” The other is that they are saying that their bosses, direct reports, colleagues, and customers have blown up at them over relatively minor work issues. In other words, people are triggered more quickly and without warning because of uncertainty and exhaustion. This level of overreaction is happening at all levels of the organization. The consequence is people may withdraw, be less collaborative, or they may not bring critical problems to the forefront.  

While no one strategy will miraculously solve your exhaustion or re-energize your teams, here are some approaches my clients we have developed to meet the current challenges. 

 

  1. Force yourself to make decisions, especially if you know the right thing to do. If you are not ready, set a deadline for the decision and then figure out what you need to do to feel good about your choice. Clients report tremendous relief and energy after making a difficult decision. 
  2. Take time off and make sure your staff does too. Strive to disengage. Do not send emails when you are on vacation and do not send emails to your team when they are on vacation. (It does not matter if the break is one day or three weeks.)  
  3. If you have not been to your office workspace yet, go back for a day. Many of my clients have been surprised by the positive emotions associated with physical presence and the joy of reconnecting with colleagues. Doing so may also help clarify how you want to work in the future. 
  4. Conduct a self-assessment. Review all of the things you are doing and ask yourself, “Am I the only person who can do this?”, “Where am I stuck?” and “What is draining my energy?” Then share your concerns with others and ask for help. Encourage your direct reports to do the same. 
  5. Take time to connect with someone at work or in your personal life who you have not spoken to for a while. Both a real connection and a new point of view can bring positive energy. 
  6. Set an obtainable personal development goal and focus on the process to reach it, not just on the result. By focusing on the process, you can have positive achievements every day. 
  7. Apologize. If your reaction has been out of proportion, take responsibility for your behavior. Likewise, if you have inadvertently triggered someone, apologize for upsetting them. Humility and compassion are always welcomed. 
  8. Look for the positive at work and point it out to others. Our brains are wired to look for problems, and this can overshadow the things that are working. By highlighting things that are working, bringing recognition to others, and focus on learning, you can create more energy. 

The whole world is exhausted. Remember that you and your colleagues are human. Forgive yourself and others for not being perfect. Then be generous with yourself and others.   

Authors

Brenda Steinberg

IMD Coach

Brenda Steinberg is an executive coach and leadership consultant with more than 20 years of experience in working with senior leaders. She contributes regularly to executive education programs at IMD and works as a consultant with Genesis Advisers.

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