Two years ago, I began hearing the phrase “It isn’t sustainable” over and over from senior executives. They were talking about the everyday demands at work.
The day of reckoning seems to have arrived. During the past month alone, no less than a half dozen senior executives have told me that fatigue, exhaustion and even burnout are the biggest issues they’re facing both for themselves and among their troops.
Sustainable capacity — meaning sufficient fuel in the tank — is what makes it possible to bring one’s skill and talent to life. Not even the most talented and motivated employees can run on empty.
One CEO of a multinational company told me that just dealing with time differences had left him so exhausted he was seriously considering quitting. Another CEO at a much-admired company told me that for the first time, he’s losing truly valued employees who say they simply can’t take it anymore. In a recent survey at a third organisation, over 80% of the top 400 leaders reported they spend the majority of their days feeling negative emotions, fuelled in large part by overload and overwhelm.
Are you wondering whether your organisation is at risk of imploding? Fatigue can be hard to read. Negativity, however, is a leading indicator, and it’s often overlooked.
With precious few exceptions, negative emotions are hurtful, toxic, and destructive — to ourselves and to others. Obvious as this may seem, most of us spend a good deal of time feeling impatient, frustrated, angry, or anxious, defensive, and fearful without fully recognising why these emotions arise so persistently or the toll they take.
By contrast, think for a moment about how you feel when you’re performing at your best. What words come to mind? I’m betting they’re ones such as happy, excited, optimistic, energized, confident, alive, and connected. These emotions not only feel good, they also help us to perform better. So what prompts us to move so frequently in just the opposite direction?
The answer is that we never do so intentionally. Rather, we move into negative emotions reactively and automatically, when we’re feeling endangered or threatened. Nothing makes us more instantly vulnerable than exhaustion. As Vince Lombardi once put it, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
When we feel at risk, what gets triggered first is our biochemistry — the fight or flight response. Adrenalin, noradrenalin, and cortisol flood our bloodstream. These hormones prompt a series of physiological responses designed to help us react more quickly and effectively to the perceived danger. Control of our behaviour moves from the prefrontal cortex, which progressively shuts down in fight or flight, to the amygdala, which takes over and reacts far more quickly.
All this makes great sense if you’re facing an imminent threat to your life. In those cases, thinking only slows down the time it takes to respond. If there’s a lion coming at you, it’s far better to react instinctively rather than reflectively.
The problem is that our bodies make no distinction between the threat from a lion — once very real, but now nearly inconceivable — and a host of more modern threats, such as a difficult boss, colleague, employee, or customer. These threats loom far larger when we’re tired, and fight or flight is a suboptimal way to respond in the modern world.
In a knowledge-based economy, for example, we can’t very well afford a compromised ability to think. Beyond that, negative emotions are contagious. Anger begets more anger, and the same is true of fear. Worse yet, negative emotions quickly burn down our remaining energy reserves. It’s a cycle that feeds on itself.
So what’s the antidote in a world of relentlessly rising demand?
Until now, leaders of organisations have chosen to simply work more hours — and they’ve asked their employees to do the same. The result is decreasing return on each incremental hour invested — and a lower quality of work. The ethic of more, bigger, faster literally isn’t sustainable in a world of finite resources.
The counterintuitive answer is to ennoble the role of renewal in organisations. The greater the demand, the greater the need to intermittently rest, refuel and reflect. Unfortunately, our inclination is to do just the opposite — to push harder and more continuously as the pressure grows.
In fact, it’s not the number of hours we work that determines the value we create. Rather, it’s the quality of energy we bring to the hours we work. By renewing regularly, it’s possible to get more done, in less time, at a higher level of quality, more sustainably. When we’re less fatigued, we’re not only less prey to negative emotions, we’re also more likely to access the positive ones we need to feel to perform at our best.
It’s a simple principle: Give people a break and you’ll get more from them.
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