Remember April 2020? If you were like me, normal everyday actions like buying a cup of coffee or getting groceries filled you with anxiety or dread. Perhaps you'd stopped these actions entirely, making coffee at home from groceries delivered to your door.
Do you remember how you felt about work at the time?
Anxiety and stress at work has absolutely increased because of the covid pandemic, but I have stories about losing sleep at work and colleagues crying in their cars in the parking lot from years back.
Toxic coworkers, an always-on work culture, low pay, lack of health insurance or paid time off... the list of reasons we get burned out at work is a long one and covid-19 is only one of them.
So how do you build resilience, for yourself AND for people looking to your leadership?
The good news is, tools to build resilience for yourself will help others - through modeling and enforcing boundaries, self-care behaviors, and a growth mindset.
Here's a list of what I'll cover in this post:
Boundaries are a big piece of avoiding burnout: When you can leave work at work, and you limit most workdays to 8 hours or less, you're not only helping yourself but you're also helping all the people who are not receiving messages from you at 10pm asking about why they haven't finished task x yet or reminding them about task y.
Another way to think about boundaries: Within any given workday, how much control do you have your time and attention? That's a question where reasonable answers will look very different depending on types of job and various industries. The important thing, across the board, is to have the ability to say "no" or "not now" to tasks that interrupt priority items. (Hint: If you're in a place where "everything is a priority," your leadership needs some culture work. You can schedule a call to discuss that.)
The trick about boundaries is, how do you avoid THINKING about work when you don't need to be working? Most of us who have sent that 10pm email that really wasn't that urgent sent it simply because, "I was thinking about and just needed to get it out!" Out of your head so you could stop thinking about it, out into the world while you were remembering it... what do we do about those feelings?
While mindfulness techniques are the best way to go, I admit I have absolutely chosen the lower-difficulty task at times - I write that email and use the "schedule send" button so it doesn't hit my employee's inbox till a more normal working hour; or, I type up the message in a blank, non-internet-connected app and then set up a calendar reminder to copy & paste it into Slack or an iMessage during a time I know my employee is working. Yes, that takes a couple additional steps - and as a leader, it's my responsibility to follow them.
It is NOT just enough to tell people they don't have to respond when you email them at 10pm. If this is you, your words are NOT matching your actions - which do you think people will follow?
Paid Time Off
I remember when a company I worked for switched from specific pots of time (vacation, sick, personal, holidays) to one pot of "paid time off." Nearly every colleague I spoke to, myself included, felt this was a terrible change: Because the total number of paid days off had decreased.
It didn't matter to us that almost none of us had ever used all our sick days in a year. It bothered us that we no longer had that cushion of time if we needed it. The idea of additional flexibility in types of days off was less important than the total potential days you could be paid for and not be working.
This is not a diatribe about the commonality of PTO - this is an example of how important the ability to not work and still be paid is.
Paid time off is about boundaries, autonomy, and flexibility. No matter our industry or position, we generally want to step away from work and do other things. A very covid-19 era example: The ability to go get a vaccine in the middle of the day or call in sick without being concerned about losing a day's pay or being reprimanded is a basic way to demonstrate that you care about your employees.
Of course, the other aspect of paid time off is not just the number of days in your policy - it's the feeling that you CAN take time off and not just have work piling up in your absence. The feeling that your colleagues have your back and will cover in your absence. And that's almost entirely about culture, not policy.
Boundaries and paid time off are about the ability to take care of yourself, to thrive outside of work, and to recover from any professional setbacks you experience.
Two other topics help people build resilience in a less tangible way: fostering a growth mindset and building gratitude practices.
The pioneer of growth mindsets is psychologist Carol Dweck, and I highly recommend her work if you're looking for help in deepening your understanding.
Basically, a growth mindset focuses on learning processes and, well, growth. In opposition to a growth mindset is a fixed mindset, where we assume that our talents are basically inborn. Unfortunately, a fixed mindset can mean that people are afraid to take risks because a failure would mean that they are incapable - so it's better to just not try something new. With a growth mindset, any risk is an opportunity to learn - failures are just learning experiences.
Any time you have a "post mortem" meeting at work, this is an opportunity to foster learning. Unfortunately, it's fairly common to stunt the opportunities meetings like this offer through comments that, by design or default, focus on the negative and sound judgmental. Example: "Next time, don't make that mistake." vs. "How might we avoid that problem in the future?"
Gratitude is another way to foster prosocial behaviors - boundaries, collaboration, community, a learning focus/growth mindset.
There are lots of ways to foster gratitude at work - for yourself and for others - and no, I absolutely do not mean end your emails with "Thanks." (I mean, it's fine to do that, just don't assume that doing so means you're practicing gratitude.)
To practice gratitude is to set aside time to engage in true appreciation of stuff over which you have little to no control. It's the idea that no one gets ahead entirely on their own. I could not have started my business without my husband's salary, over which I have no control. I could not have won an award for starting a new program at work without my supervisor's support and the volunteers I managed, over whom I had some influence, but little control.
For yourself, try out this simple journaling practice for one week - then see how your outlook changes. If you feel it's a positive experience, invite others you work with to give it a try. Do not require it. Making gratitude practices one more to-do task people are "voluntold" or just told to do basically negates any good that can come of it.
I started my gratitude practice with that same action, and I used a separate journal than the one I usually write in. Now, whenever I feel called to or when I realize that I haven't used that particular journal in a while, I pick the same journal up and jot down, in detail, something for which I am grateful.