So here’s the dilemma: you’re a CEO, a senior leader, or a high-level manager at a large company. You know that a significant percentage of your employees are feeling overworked, overwhelmed, exhausted, and less than fully engaged. You agree, philosophically, that when people take care of themselves, they feel better, and maybe even work better. That’s why you spend money on wellness programs. But deep down, you also believe that working harder and longer than everyone else is what made you successful, and in a disrupted, intensely demanding, fiercely competitive world, that’s honestly what you think it takes. So where’s the disconnect? The answer is mindset – the often unconscious beliefs and assumptions that leaders evolve based on the corporate cultures they grew up in, what worked in their own careers, and what felt true as a result.
“More, bigger, faster is better” has been the mantra of free-market capitalism ever since the Industrial Revolution. As recently as 1973, the average American worked 1,679 hours per year. In 2015, that number reached 1811 hours. That’s the equivalent of more than three extra weeks of work a year. The result is an epidemic of overload, overwhelm, and burnout among employees at all levels in companies around the world.
To combat this problem, global corporate spending on workplace wellness programs has now reached $50 billion annually. The problem is that several studies, including a recent one by the National Institute of Mental Health, suggest that workplace wellness programs have failed to improve people’s health much at all, or to significantly change their experience at work. That, we believe, is because leaders rarely role-model or actively support the programs and practices they fund.
Leadership burnout begets employee burnout
How often do you or other leaders in your company send out emails late into the evenings and over weekends? To what extent do leaders at your company expect people to respond to emails and join conferences calls even when they’re on vacation? How many of your leaders role-model a balanced life and actively support others in taking care of themselves?
Not long ago, we were approached by the CEO of a large bank, who asked us to help his leadership team better manage the intense demand they’re facing. We began to negotiate a contract with members of his HR team, but with the first session a week out, the deal was still not finalized.
We emailed the CEO late one afternoon, and by the next morning, we had the signed contract. Later, we learned that the CEO had read our email at 9 pm that day. He immediately called his head of HR to gather the required stakeholders so they could work on the contract – starting at 10pm. The irony was not lost on us. Several executives at the company worked late into the night to complete an agreement for a program intended to help people work in more sustainable ways. Late-night work was simply standard practice. No one questioned it, even though they were all exhausted by the hours they were expected to put in.
What leaders say and do has a disproportionate impact on the behaviors that employees feel comfortable adopting. Even with the proliferation of nap rooms, yoga classes, and mindfulness courses, if leaders don’t sanction and model the use of these offerings, employees are loath to utilize them. The good news is that when leaders change their behavior, the benefits are clear. In a study of 20,000 employees, we found that while only 25% of respondents said their leaders modeled sustainable work practices, employees working for those leaders were 55% more engaged, 77% more satisfied at work, and 1.1 times more likely to stay at the company. They also reported more than twice the level of trust in their leader.
Leaders reward busyness and overwork over value creation
Our experience is that when people feel comfortable balancing periods of highly focused work – ideally no longer than 90 minutes at a stretch – with intermittent renewal, they actually get more done, in less time, at a higher level of quality, in a more sustainable way. Instead, most leaders continue to evaluate their employees in significant part by how many hours they work, rather than by the value they create. Employees absorb this expectation and end up believing that working long and continuous hours is not only what gets most rewarded, but also the best way to be productive. In fact, cultures of overwork create a "box ticker" mentality in which people value busyness over real productivity. Responding quickly to all requests and crossing items off to-do lists become false measures of success, at the expense of prioritizing the most important tasks and giving them the absorbed and undivided attention they require.
Well-being has become a buzzword in corporate America – especially with the recent World Health Organization designation of “burnout” as a workplace hazard. However, a true shift in mindset and in organizational culture can occur only when leaders begin to challenge their own assumptions by experimenting with different ways of working, both for themselves and for their employees. As one example, we advocate that all companies require employees to develop not just an annual Development Plan, but also a Resilience Plan, which we wrote about earlier here. Forward-looking leaders need to focus as much on what’s going on inside their employees – what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling – as on what they’re doing and producing. CEOs must serve not just as Chief Executive Officers, but also as Chief Energy Officers, skillful at managing their own energy and the energy of those they lead. In nearly two decades of working with organizations, we have found very few CEOs and senior leaders who move beyond providing wellness options and benefits to truly driving cultures that value regular renewal as a critical component of performance. Now is the time. In a world of relentless disruption, transforming the way people work may be the biggest competitive advantage of all.
Who will step up and lead the way?