Many of you know I had a harrowing experience with the corner of a table. Well, actually, it was when I fainted and my head hit on the corner of a table. Had I known that only one year earlier, a leader experiencing similar stress and exhaustion broke her cheekbone as she fainted and fell to the floor, accepting my vulnerability would have been easier in good company when I regained consciousness.
It turns out that Thrive Global’s founder and CEO Arianna Huffington and I had the same wake-up call. In her case, she was working eighteen-hour days building her news website, and she collapsed in the midst of a phone call while scrolling through emails. In retrospect, I think that both she and I would agree that our experiences foreshadowed an incredible movement that’s taking place in companies all over the world: We can no longer ignore the wake-up call; it’s time to make wellness a priority.
Employee wellness is no longer a hush-hush topic operating from the corner of someone’s desk or dismissed with a bullet point on a job description; mental health is the focus of leadership discussions and a prime directive for human resources executives. Despite the pain and trauma the pandemic has caused everyone, it forced us to recognize that mental health must be part of the mainstream conversation.
Yet, according to Cal Berkeley professor and The Burnout Challenge author Christina Maslach, many workplace cultures are still on a learning curve with how to mitigate the effects of stress and anxiety. Taking time off isn’t a cure for, say, burnout in the workplace. Maslach explains that burnout is a response to chronic stressors. If we give someone time off, that’s only a temporary coping mechanism. “Coping doesn’t take care of the causing,” says Maslach.
We have to work at understanding the mismatch between an employee and the root cause of stress, she adds. Is it a lack of perceived fairness, too many long hours, or low levels of connectedness with others? Or is it ongoing situational crises of the Southwest Airlines kind? No matter the root cause, Maslach recommends a combination of resting, recharging, and connecting to help you cope with consistent pressure.
Because stress happens every day, it has to be interrupted every day, says Maslach. Huffington and her leadership team at Thrive Global have acted on this advice and provided their employees with more than one hundred sixty-second “Resets” to choose from online, which allow for that emotional reset between tasks or meetings. Basic science teaches us that if we can break the stress cycle with these exercises, the body releases the cortisol—a hormone that regulates your blood pressure and your body’s stress response.
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Refueling our mental and physical energy can mean something different for every person. What’s more, taking time off isn’t always the answer, because what created signs of burnout is often waiting for you when you return.
Our recovery depends on an integrated approach of all three strategies mentioned here (rest, recharge, and connect). If you ask twenty people what recharges them, you’ll get twenty different answers. Leaders need to facilitate dialogue around what that looks like—for instance, creating an online space where employees can share how they’ve personally chosen to recharge so others are inspired to look deeper within their own interests and hobbies.
Thanks to longitudinal research of successful people, like the 80-year study overseen by Robert Waldinger at Harvard Business School, we know that social connections with your partner, family, friends, and social circles are the single most important indicators of happiness. “Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, which are automatic mood boosters, while isolation is a mood buster,” says Waldinger. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.”
I don’t want to speak for Arianna Huffington, but it’s safe to guess that she and I consider ourselves among the lucky ones. We had great people surrounding us who were ready to step up when we needed it. But the learning moment is that we both needed to build in self-care measures and model that behavior for our teams.
If you’re feeling invincible right now and thinking “That’s not going to happen to me,” remember that everyone responds to stress differently. People will look to their leaders for permission to be human, and we could all use more humanity in the workplace.