How to Fix What’s Sapping Your People’s Energy

Resilience and Mental Well-Being
10 Minute Read
September 27, 2021

Zoom happy hours? Check. Slack channels for #dogs and #sourdough? Check. Free meditation apps for everyone? Check. Businesses have thrown a lot of solutions at the problem of rising frustration, fatigue, and stress in the workplace. Is it working? The jury’s out. In June, the CDC reported that 40% of US adults struggled with mental health and substance use issues associated with COVID.

The many sources of workplace stress came up strongly on a Zoom call I hosted recently with members from World 50, a private community of business leaders who meet to discover ideas and build lasting relationships, and are partners in our Go Forward To Work research project with Harvard. We’ve been holding a series of group calls to surface and share the best practices that leading organizations are adopting in a time of unprecedented volatility. We got on the topic of resilience, again, and burrowed down to the roots of our frustration and fatigue. Everyone identified a wide set of job stressors. The big ones were performance pressure, meeting fatigue, a lack of routines to support healthy habits, and frustration overbalancing work and childcare. But people are feeling the effects of macro-anxieties around social unrest and racial injustice, divisive politics, and income inequality.

Everyone is experiencing many of these and all of these, and instead of just throwing interesting diversions at our teams, a thoughtful leader’s job is to first identify and isolate the unique sources of stress in our organizations and develop a plan to mitigate each of them. With a clear set of actions, you can change the game for a lot of people so they’re more often in a winning and engaged mindset.

First, you have to find out where the stressors are. Survey platforms such as Qualtrics and Glint are a good way to do that. We have helped other companies conduct large town halls where Zoom breakout rooms and a quick Google doc filled in among peers can give a great deal of insight to what is distracting an organization. Generally, such data collection helps people to focus and activate more quickly.

If polls alone don't feel satisfactory, reach out to the workforce through human channels. Alexion Pharmaceuticals tapped a group of 50 employees during the pandemic to act as “reflectors” and contact 20 or 30 other employees for their feedback on COVID-19 stressors. The reflector network was quickly able to cover almost 2,000 people out of an organization of 2,500. “People felt their voice was heard and that made a huge impact on employee engagement, as well,” says Gianluca Pirozzi, head of clinical development and translational sciences at Alexion.


Here’s a brief list of the seven prominent workplace stressors and some practices leaders are taking to deal with them.

Job security stress

Sixteen million Americans are still out of work and the layoff headlines keep coming from the likes of American Airlines, United, Disney, Uber, Hyatt Hotels, LinkedIn and Salesforce. Even if many larger, tech-enabled firms are weathering the disruption, other sectors including retail have seen bankruptcies and thousands of stores shuttered. Some workers have had the extra stress of watching their job security play out in public. As players and team owners negotiated the delayed start to Major League Baseball’s 2020 season, Anita Seghal, senior vice president of marketing communications for the Houston Astros, knew her workforce was on edge. “They’re probably finding out more in the news than they were from the company,” she said. But her boss, team owner Jim Crane, said if there was a chance of playing baseball, that's a chance to save jobs. After several weeks had dragged on with no decision, he made the call and announced that everyone would stay on the payroll at least until the season was over. “That relieved one of the greatest mental anxieties for people,” says Seghal. Moral: Be there for people even if it means sacrificing near-term profits. At Ferrazzi Greenlight we did the same throughout the pandemic.  

Like many hotel chains, Intercontinental cut pay and furloughed half of its corporate staff (and 95% of hotel staff) in the U.S. and U.K. when the pandemic hit. Early on, the folks who remained became known as the KTLO or "Keep The Lights On Team" and had to take on roles below them and to the side of them and strained to hold the ship together. After three months, they were exhausted and fatigued but instilled with new grit and loyalty to their trench mates. The furloughed returnees were in a different headspace, rested, but anxious about re-joining colleagues who had just gone through months on a war footing.

To ensure a less stressful reunion of the two teams, the company set up a series of dialogues for each group. The KTLOs wanted gratitude for their hard work and acknowledgment that they were exhausted and frustrated. For the people coming back, the message was "Look, many of you have been bored for three months ,maybe bitter that you were furloughed, and you want to start working hard, but we need you to be conscious that your colleagues are very, very tired,” says Sopan Shah, chief procurement officer for Intercontinental. The sessions, which were extended to include talks on changes to the industry and how to build resilience, “are almost resetting that culture,” says Shah.

Racial injustice and political stress

 Racial injustice, street protests, and an uncertain political climate have led to further unease, compounding the problems of a global health crisis. Between Covid-19, a suffering economy and social unrest, the drumbeat of news can feel overwhelming and exhausting.  

“The social dissonance is real. The difference between those that have support mechanisms and good environments and those that may not, or struggle, is underestimated,” says Tom Brown, who served as SVP Human Resources at software maker Automation Anywhere, in San Jose, CA.

As leaders, we can’t solve all the stresses floating around. Aside from ensuring that companies provide workers a living wage, economic inequality and political polarization are largely outside of our control (or at least beyond the bounds of what many organizations are interested in discussing within the business). So the least we can do is to acknowledge that people have a right to voice differences of opinion and to give time and space for them to participate as they wish. Coca-Cola,Twitter, Wal-Mart, Cisco and 1,300 other companies have joined Patagonia’s call to give employees Election Day as a day off to vote. Others such as Apple, and Starbucks are giving employees part of the day with pay, while LeviStrauss is also offering five hours of paid time off for employees to volunteer on get out the vote efforts. That helps.

Meeting fatigue

This working-from-home thing is going to continue long after it’s required. It’s practical, efficient and people like it. Gartner research from July found that 82% of organizations will let employees continue to work remotely at least some of the time. But Zoom fatigue is by now well-documented. People’s brains have to work harder, especially in the dreaded gallery mode, to make up for all the nonverbal cues we’re missing from in-person interactions, not to mention the performance anxiety of watching yourself on screen all the time.

The Astros’ Seghal has instituted a45-minute-meeting only rule among her team so that everyone's got a 15-minute window to check on the kids (or get a snack, get up and stretch, and stop looking at a screen). “No back-to-back-to-back Zooms,” she says. At Ferrazzi Greenlight we perform a process called a “Remote Reboot” so teams can make their meetings even more productive and engaged than they were before. Be sure your meetings are engineered so that every 15 minutes you are taking a poll, and definitely use breakout rooms for collaborative problem solving or peer-to-peer feedback. Encourage meeting leaders to call on people to share their thoughts -- they’ll be more apt to pay attention. Same with giving people different tasks in meetings, and rotating those tasks regularly. Have a different team member keep the minutes of the meeting; track action items, owners and deadlines; and even come up with a fun question to ask everyone at the conclusion of the meeting.

Childcare fatigue

Willow, a manufacturer of a wearable silent breast pump, recently -meeting Wednesdays to give people a day to catch up on stuff and be free. To avoid having those missing meetings show up elsewhere on the calendar, the company asked everyone to go through their agenda and reduce the number and length of meetings and attendees per meeting by 20% across the board. “So far it's going really well,” says CEO Laura Chambers. With kids back in school(mostly), her operations team shifted all of their meetings to the afternoon so that people can be around more in the morning for their kids.

And everyone at the company is encouraged to block out time as they see fit as out of office, which shows up as purple when you're in Outlook. “Purple blocks,”says Chambers, “are a guilt-free time for people to use when they need to focus on school or go for a walk. And as leaders we're using it and celebrating it and encouraging it because people who take it feel really guilty about it because they feel like they should be on Zoom and Slack and accessible.”

Mastercard came to the rescue this summer of its employees with school-age kids. The HR team also created a Summer Kids Club from scratch for 5-12 year old's, coordinating activities such as cooking, dance, and STEM classes. More than a thousand children signed up for at least 3-4 hours a day, giving a much-needed break for parents. The HR team even re-packaged some of  its existing employee training on topics like cryptology so it made sense for kids. “Normally it would have taken months to get legal to sign off on something like that. But everyone just rallied and got it done,” says Michael Fraccaro, chief human resources officer at Mastercard.

Performance pressure fatigue

Delivering your numbers in the middle of the “pancession” is possible, but not without causing some sleepless nights. Willow’s Laura Chambers began to see some unhealthy mood swings in her organization, which shifted depending on whether it was hitting its daily and weekly forecast. So she decided to reduce the forecast a bit so that people will not always feel they are failing. “When people are already on the edge of stress that’s going to help quite a bit,” she says.

Kristin Rand, VP of Corporate Compliance & Global RiskOfficer at Moderna, described the added sense of responsibility and pressure felt by the biotech company’s employees who are working hard to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus. “On a daily basis, we give our all colleagues are constantly thinking about the needs of people around the world.

Hundreds of new employees, including Rand, have joined Moderna's ranks over the past year. “Providing resources and opportunity for people to feel heard and alleviate stress – by encouraging open dialogue and time away –is paramount. Moderna’s CEO and leadership team have been committed to taking specific actions like avoiding Friday afternoon or weekend meetings and have made a mindfulness and meditation app available to all employees,” she said.

Lack of routines to promote healthy habits

One of the realities of working from home can be a lack of structured workdays and the ability to make time for personal care and exercise. Some companies are encouraging workers to turn the 30 or 40-minutes they might otherwise have spent commuting into scheduled time for healthy juice breaks, yoga stretches or other physical activity. Microsoft, in fact, is building that functionality into its Teams collaboration software so employees can dedicate time to setting goals each morning, and then review their work or meditate with the Headspace app at the end of the day

Tim Patno, VP of Sales at WW Health Solutions, has made a point of providing information on mental wellness tools and tips on healthy habits, such as turning meetings into “learning walks,” and “just being of value” to client prospects in difficult times. For some, that’s meant “taking contracting talks off the table,” but it has also allowed his teams to get closer to those organizations considering wellness and nutrition programs as employee benefits– yielding deeper partnerships as a result. “They’ve proactively remembered that we showed up in the right way as an organization and are now looking to2021 with the hopes that things are going to return to some semblance of normalcy... and are picking up the dialogues in a back-to- business way,” said Patno.

Isolation fatigue and team bonding

A lot of companies have found success using group chat platforms such as Slack, Yammer or Microsoft Teams to create a community around things like parenting for high school students, exercise videos, posting baby pictures, and celebrating birthdays. It's nice to have those places to connect and share, but great leaders do more than that to bring their teams together.

Pam Klyn, VP, Product and Brands at Whirlpool, said that for an extra perk, employees from different teams marking a service anniversary or a birthday during a given month are celebrated in a one-hour virtual “Ask Me Anything” session with senior managers, helping people develop support networks they might not otherwise have. “One might be in the lab, another working on dryers, and I think it might create some interesting connection points for people in shared circumstances,” she said.

Before Covid-19, Krystal Zell, the chief customer officer at Home Depot, would always start off her staff meetings with people sharing their anxiety level on a 1 to10 scale. Everybody eventually settled at a norm, so if Phil's anxiety was usually at a five and he came in at a seven or eight, the team knew they needed to help Phil. “I loved this system,” says Zell, “because my directs started helping each other in ways you don’t normally see in staff meetings when everyone would just go around and talk about what they’re doing.” As Covid-19 wore on, the anxiety question got a little old, so Zell made her kick-off queries more specific to what people were working through, such as ‘what's top of mind this week,’ or ‘what’s causing you to lose sleep?’

Those sound a lot like the two exercises I recommend for executive teams that I coach. One is a quick meeting starter called a “sweet and sour” where people share one thing that’s going great and something they’re struggling with. The more involved exercise is a “personal-professional check-in,” which is a regular 45-minute meeting just for bonding, where participants take five minutes to share. Each person gets a chance to reveal what they're struggling with personally and professionally to their peers. It has been really powerful for all the teams I’ve worked with, not just to relieve frustration and stress but also to create openings for candor later on during hard conversations about the business.

Laura Chambers at Willow starts off her staff meetings with a personal prompt, one of which she plucked from her young daughter: If you were a pair of shoes, what pair of shoes would you be and why? "It's interesting,” says Chambers. “People say things like, well I feel like a pair of UGG boots because I'm kind of comfortable at home. Or I’m a pair of stilettos because I'm feeling really teeter right now. It's a fun way to get the creative juices going, and I can't tell you how appreciative people are of that five or 10 minutes a week. It's blown me away how needed that was.”

Photo by Josefa  nDiaz on Unsplash

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