An exhausted-looking woman in her 30’s describes the stress of managing her work responsibilities, spending time at the hospital bedside of her mother, who recently had a stroke, and caring for her two young twins at home, both of whom have a persistent cough and have been regularly waking up in the middle of the night. Just a day earlier, she tells the group, she feared that she was having a heart attack, and rushed to the emergency room. It turned out to be a panic attack.
A man in his 40’s, whose consultant wife travels four days a week, describes his struggle to take care of three teenage children while working late into each evening on a demanding work project of his own. Another younger man tells the story of dealing with his third boss in the past year.
This isn’t a group therapy session, although it easily could be. Rather, it’s the sort of conversation that is taking place with increasing frequency in the modern workplace.
Work in the age of anxiety
Clients across multiple industries tell us that their people are feeling more overwhelmed than ever by the volume of work they’re managing, the complexity of the challenges they’re facing, the competing priorities they’re juggling, and the relentless change and disruption in their businesses. According to BCG, over half of large companies are going through a major transformation at any given point. A recent study by Gartner found that the average worker endured a dozen organizational changes of various sizes in the past year alone.
Add to that family and caregiver responsibilities, financial worries, fierce political polarization, climate change, and the fear created by terrorists randomly killing people at schools, churches, synagogues, concerts and on city streets.
It scarcely seems surprising that two-thirds of Americans reported feeling “extremely” or “somewhat” anxious last year. Or that 30 percent of them felt even more anxious in 2019 than they did in 2018.
The unspoken expectation in most workplaces has always been that employees will check their feelings – especially negative ones — at the door each morning. That’s no longer possible, if it ever was, given the level of stress so many of us are feeling. Nor does pretending we’re fine necessarily serve us well. We can’t help bringing our emotions to work, and how we’re feeling in any given moment profoundly influences how we perform. The more anxious we are, the less capable we become.
So how can individuals and organizations manage themselves more skillfully in this new normal? The answer, we’ve found, begins with redeploying energy. It can be summarized in something we call the Energy Serenity Prayer: “Invest your energy in what you have the power to influence. Don’t squander it on what you can’t control, and have the wisdom to know the difference.”
Building emotional agility in an uncertain world
At the most basic level, our challenge is neurochemical. The more time we spend emotionally activated – in fight-or-flight — the less we are able to regulate our emotions, think clearly, and act deliberately. But there are ways to build your own – and your organization’s — capacity for self-regulation. Here are four that we’ve found to be especially effective:
Intentionally build in time at 90-minute intervals to renew and refuel. Even brief breaks will quiet your mind, your emotions, and help you be more productive when you are working. As little as one minute of deep breathing – in through your nose to a count of six, out through your mouth to a count of three — can completely clear your bloodstream of the stress hormone cortisol.
One side effect of anxiety and overwhelm is that it reduces our mental bandwidth and prompts us to focus on low-value tasks, such as email and text messages because they’re less demanding and provide instant gratification. Instead, set aside a designated time each day for reflection. What are the activities that would add the greatest value if you got them done? Prioritize those.
Take more ownership.
When we’re overwhelmed, we tend to default to blame and victimhood. The problem is that the more energy we spend defending our value, the less energy we have to create value. Instead, ask yourself two questions in every challenging encounter: “What am I not seeing here?” which widens your perspective, and “What is my responsibility in this?” which actually gives you more power to influence the outcome.
Name it to tame it.
This is a phrase coined by the psychiatrist Dan Siegel, based on the insight that when we’re able a step back and name an emotion, we’re more able to observe it, rather than impulsively acting on it. We make this an organizational practice through something we call Community Meeting. It’s grounded in a deceptively simple question that participants are asked at the start of any meeting: “How are you feeling?” Or, more specifically, “How are you really feeling?” Sharing difficult emotions helps to normalize them, and fuels both connection and a greater experience of safety.
Change, disruption, and demand will continue to accelerate, making us ever more vulnerable to anxiety and its undermining impact on our lives. Managing our emotions is more critical than ever and that requires organizations to make taking care of people as important as taking care of business.