Here’s a vexing paradox. On the one hand, companies are offering more wellness and well-being options than ever before, including mindfulness and yoga classes, nap rooms, and fitness facilities. On the other hand, employee burnout has risen to such a level that the World Health Organization now considers it a workplace hazard.

Most corporate well-being offerings are well-intended and potentially valuable. The problem is that without challenging the deeply embedded mindset that more, bigger, faster is always better, these offerings don’t get fully supported, nor are they widely and freely utilized.

Earlier this year, Ernst & Young (EY) and The Energy Project set out to test a hypothesis: If all members of a client-serving team rallied together to build more rest and renewal into their lives, they would feel better and they’d get more work accomplished in less time.

Every industry has its busier periods, whether it’s the holidays for retailers, extended trials for attorneys, or M&A negotiations for investment bankers. For accountants, the traditional busy season runs from January to April. During that time, they can expect to work long hours, including on weekends.

Our experiment was focused on a 40-person EY team based in the southeastern U.S. In 2018 they had experienced intense pressure while working on behalf of a client going through significant internal challenges of its own. By the time busy season ended, the EY team felt exhausted and demoralized.

As the 2019 busy season began, The Energy Project worked with the team to develop a collective Resilience Plan. Much like the development plans that employees create at the beginning of each year to spell out their goals, the Resilience Plan focused on how people would manage their energy — physically, emotionally, and mentally — especially during intense work periods. The plan included five key behaviors:

  • Do your most important work when you first get to the office, for an uninterrupted stretch of 60 to 90 minutes, and then take a renewal break.
  • Get up from your desk at lunchtime for at least 30 minutes, and do some type of movement.
  • After 90 minutes of work, take a break of at least five minutes. If that isn’t possible, do one minute of deep breathing to clear your bloodstream of stress hormones.
  • When you stop working for the day, do something that allows you to transition mentally and emotionally between work and home.
  • Set a pre-sleep routine and a bedtime that insures you get at least seven hours of sleep.

After an initial daylong session for the team that focused on the principles and practices of managing energy, we followed up throughout busy season with one-hour group coaching sessions every other week. To leverage the diversity of the team, we chose cohorts of six to seven people with different ranks, practice lines, ages, and backgrounds.

During the sessions, group members shared their successes and setbacks, supported one another in dealing with continuing demands, challenged each other’s assumptions about what was possible, and explored the resistance to change that arose along the way. Each participant was paired with another member of the team as an additional form of accountability and support.

Almost immediately after the cohort sessions started, we observed significant shifts in behavior. Many team members began starting their days by focusing uninterrupted on their most important or difficult task. They quickly discovered they were able to accomplish critical tasks more efficiently, which helped set a positive tone for the rest of the workday.

Team members also began going out to lunch together and taking intermittent breaks. Some participants scheduled walking meetings in order to get outside — with colleagues, or by themselves while on conference calls.

A significant number of participants committed to specific bedtimes to ensure they got at least seven hours of sleep. To meet this goal, several of them began shutting down their electronic devices at least a half-hour before bed.

One manager removed social media apps from her cell phone to minimize incoming distractions. “I thought scrolling was a way of relaxing in the evening,” she told us. “But I realized it was just overstimulating and interfered with getting to sleep.”

Another participant, who had just returned to work after maternity leave, acknowledged that she had serious doubts about whether she would be able to manage busy season with an infant at home. Prioritizing her most important work at the start of the day, and building in renewal time along the way, improved her focus. She was able to get more done in less time and leave the office earlier in the day. Because she felt less depleted, she had more positive energy to devote to her family when she got home.

A third participant, who runs marathons, had always stopped training during busy season because she believed there was no way she could fit long daily runs into her schedule. Emboldened by the insight that the time she spent running provided a source of mental and emotional renewal, she chose to continue her training during busy season. Shortly after it ended, she was able to run a half-marathon.

The team also benefited collectively. Employees were so much more efficient and productive that they were able to get their work done in fewer hours, and they all agreed to take off one weekend day each week. On the other days, many of them were able to leave significantly earlier than they had during past busy seasons. Members of the client team they served were so impressed by the shifts that they eventually asked how they might join the experiment.

At the end of the busy season, team members reported feeling dramatically better than they had following the previous busy season. Those who had been deeply fatigued a year earlier recovered significantly more quickly this time. “They were fully back in the game after two weeks,” the team’s lead partner told us. “It showed us the extraordinary value of intentionally taking care of ourselves.” In the five months after busy season, when accounting teams industrywide often lose multiple team members to exhaustion and burnout, this team’s retention stood at 97.5%.

Interested in launching a similar experiment in your organization? Here are several lessons we learned:

  • Find a champion who believes in the idea — the more senior the better. Changing habits is always difficult, especially when the approach challenges long-held beliefs. Sam Johnson, who led EY’s southeast region and is now EY Americas Vice Chair of Accounts, has long been a champion of the firm’s “vitality” efforts. After attending a session with The Energy Project, Johnson made significant changes in managing his way of working, and he was keen to bring the insights to employees in his region.
  • Select a hands-on team leader who is willing to actively participate in the pilot and model the new behaviors. The lead partner for the EY U.S. team was both committed to his people’s well-being and willing to experiment with disrupting the work culture and his own way of working.
  • Get the whole team on board from the start. The first meeting sets the tone: People leave either excited about the new challenge or skeptical about yet another change effort. The Energy Project’s one-day program focuses on the key principles and practices of managing energy physically, emotionally, and mentally. Response to the day was uniformly enthusiastic, including from initial skeptics, which created momentum for the work that followed. All of the team’s partners participated, giving team members permission and encouragement both to try out the new behaviors and to leave the office when necessary to deal with personal needs and obligations.
  • Repetition and accountability are critical. Too many one-time interventions have a limited shelf life. When people return to the workplace, urgent demands often overwhelm their best intentions. The biweekly cohort meetings and accountability partners reinforced the initial learning and helped participants embed new behaviors into their lives. The result was a genuine culture shift on the EY U.S. team. “I was definitely one of the skeptics, but I was won over,” another partner told us. “It was very helpful to the whole team, and especially to our younger staff, to have more control over how they chose to work. We began making choices that were better for us personally, and discovered that they also made us more productive.”

Many organizations pay lip service to the notion that focusing on well-being helps people to operate at their best. What made this pilot so successful was the entire team’s willingness to embrace a different way of working, and to support each other every step of the way.