Information overload and the hyper-connected 24/7 work environment are overwhelming employees, undermining productivity and contributing to low employee engagement. Social media is also having a significant impact on productivity. According to one study, 57 percent of interruptions at work resulted from either social media tools or switching among disparate stand-alone applications. Multi-tasking has also been found to increase the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. The workplace culture today is fueled by stress, sleep deprivation and burnout.
In the meantime, the growth of exercise apps, yoga and mindfulness classes shows that individuals are eager to improve their lives. Similarly, organizations too are focusing on these issues albeit trying to ‘catch up’ with one of the most significant challenges facing the new workplace. Yet, the needle is moving slowly and you wonder why. It’s certainly not due to a lack of funds or options. It is probably because the symptoms are being treated rather than the root causes. Just by investing in cafeterias, mindfulness classes, gyms and health benefit programs, organizations may feel they are doing a lot, but the truth often is that the employee cannot avail of these benefits due to organizational barriers around workload, culture, leadership styles etc. Let’s read the following statements:
- “Cost restructuring efforts over the years stripped away our team and now we are so short on headcount that no one has any time for the gym.”
- “Everyone likes using the gym at lunch time, but the informal culture in our department is such that it is ‘really frowned’ upon to go during work hours.”
- “My manager causes me the most stress, he keeps putting more work load on us, expects us to stay back late and finish to unreasonable deadlines, so he can look good.”
- “We have a ‘meeting’ culture. We have lots of meetings with very slow decisions. If, we had half those meetings and got the time to do our work, I could go home on time.”
- “I don’t have time to do any real work, because all I do is answer e-mails all day long.”
If any of these sound familiar, then no amount of investment in benefits will cause a significant shift in the culture or healthcare cost of the organization unless the root issues are addressed. To look at this more holistically, it is important to explore the pain points along multiple dimensions and try and understand where the issues are, the extent of the damage within an organization and then create a strategy and an action plan for change.
LET’S LOOK AT THIS ALONG FOUR DIFFERENT DIMENSIONS:
Mental and Physical: From an individual’s perspective, how well they maintain balance in the way they plan their day and allocate time to different activities is one of the best determinants of how they fare on this dimension. It starts with getting adequate sleep, be it in organizing their lives so they get the sleep their body needs, or they have put their minds to rest, in order to give themselves meaningful sleep. The degree to which a person exercises, what they eat or drink through the day and the thoughts they take to bed all add up to the quality of sleep and rest they get. It’s been a fascinating experience for me to track the quality of my sleep on my fitbit and analyze it by month or quarter, noticing in particular how even on the nights I might have thought I got good sleep, it may not have been the case. Let’s begin by saying proper nutrition, exercise and rest are essential for the human body to function. There are lot of options to choose from and choices should be made wisely. The important thing though is to make space and time for these and that’s where the other three dimensions become so important.
Work and Career: Every individual (not just Millennials) seeks meaning in their work. If not, then they not putting in their full potential. Butler and Waldroop’s HBR article (Sept. 1999) on job sculpting highlights, that for work to be meaningful it has to be carved around a person’s life interests and skills and companies should focus to make that happen. Career growth has been one of the causes for employee engagement for a long time and stagnation in one’s career and slow learning curves, causes stress to a lot of people, more so in certain cultures. Organizations need to take a look at the career architecture they have in place to stay ahead of the ‘war for talent’. The other aspect is work load. In the quest for cost savings over the years, many organizations have stripped their workforce to the bone. With the rise of matrix organizations and globalization, work volume itself has crept up stealthily and needs to be addressed. Finally, the overall company culture is a huge factor on energy reserves. It is no coincidence when you look at the effort being put into improving company cultures by Airbnb, Adobe, Zappos, Southweste etc. that the energy level is significantly buoyed when an employee feels connected and in sync with their company cultures.
Technology: I remember the joyful discovery of instant messenger on my company provided laptop a few years ago. The fact that I could actually ‘ping’ a colleague on a conference call while the others were talking seemed revolutionary. “‘Wow’ this is technology, I thought” till I was trapped in it within a few months and multiple IM boxes kept cropping up on my screen while I was on a call and answering e-mails. Most of us are not even aware of how much we are handcuffed by technology as we look at the next generation and pretend it is their problem. Structural complexities (matrix/globalization), different forms of communication (email, IM, social media) and a need for over communication (to cover yourself) has led to an email explosion. A few years ago there was a funny you-tube video that did the rounds on ‘attending a conference call’, it went viral as everyone could identify with it’s twisted irony. Progressive organizations today are drawing lines on when emails are allowed (or not), e-mail etiquette training, evaluating meeting efficacy to ensure that the workforce does not become a victim of its tools of success, more than it is already.
Inter-personal Relationships: Finally, a big contributor to stress is ‘relationships’. Be it in one’s personal or professional life, these can significantly impact levels of energy. What happens in one’s personal life is private, however the two lives are increasingly integrated in today’s world. If you had a bad day at work and came home annoyed, it takes a lot to put on that smile and play with your kid. Should that permeate and lead to some fight at home it’s a vicious cycle of stress that blends into the next working day. Similarly, the leadership style of one’s manager or a peer can add a lot of stress. Organizations owe it to employees that the way in which their leaders behave does not create additional psychological burden to be carried home by employees. Leadership developmental efforts and coaching are so critical in today’s world to creating high performing teams.
Athletes in the global arena put in hours of practice for years on end to get their bodies and minds in shape for big wins. Increasing the energy reserves of employees is the key to productive employees. If employees are not at their peak conditions, there is little a company can do with other resources. However, focusing on just nutrition and exercise is not good enough, all impediments need to be removed. Focus should be on the MRI and not just the X-Ray to determine the right strategy and interventions to build a high performing culture that can support their growth plans.