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As organizations scramble to respond to the rampant stress, burnout, and mental health crises exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, many corporate wellness programs have focused on supporting self-care. We applaud the genuine concern as researchers who study employee well-being, resilience, and psychological health. We are concerned that the emphasis on self-care may undermine employee wellbeing.
Our psychological health is grounded in attachment to and acceptance by others, and this is the crux of the problem. We are social animals. Recent studies show that feeling disconnected from others is as much a health risk as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of physical activity.
Stress, anxiety, and other forms of workplace distress can be addressed with human connections. The message that employees are on their own when it comes to mental health can be sent when organizations offer individual solutions. The resulting disconnection is self-reinforcing. As employees are left to manage their pain alone, they can become trapped in destructive cycles of anxiety and shame that make it harder to foster real connections. National and organizational cultures often revere self-sufficiency and independence.
The very wellbeing efforts that organizations create, with their slate of classes and mobile apps, can become subtle forms of abandonment in the guise of support. The result is an epidemic of loneliness and mental health challenges.
The solution requires a completely different approach to workplace suffering. Taking care of each other is more important than self-care. This starts with framing employee distress as a collective problem. This approach allows organizations to build more substantive and enduring foundations for genuine well-being and, ultimately, operational effectiveness.
Our research shows that when groups frame distress or adversity as a collective problem, the resulting communal strategies bolster genuine connection and better recovery.
In a recent study of adventure racing teams, we found that setbacks are framed as setbacks to the whole team. They helped one another process the emotional aftermath of adversity. They distributed the strain so that no one person became overwhelmed.
They improved their function as a group by maintaining and strengthening their connections. They were able to work together to address the adversity by combining their physical and intellectual resources in novel ways. When a biker careened off the side of a mountain, his teammates found him hanging from a tree. They were able to pull him and his bike up after creating a human chain.
When teams viewed adversity as something to be dealt with individually, members became isolated with their own pain, fear, or anxiety. They stopped communicating, became more physically and socially distanced, and team functioning declined, often leading to mistakes and increased adversity.
It becomes easier to develop collective solutions once distress is recognized as a collective problem. The creation and fostering of what we call relational pauses is at the core of these solutions. The purpose of this pause is to bolster genuine and authentic connections between employees that enable individual well-being.
In some ways, a pause in work is a way for people to ask and answer questions about the work they are doing. A relational pause is designed to give a glimpse into the emotional and relational realities of work.
The process does not require people to be friends. To help group members engage with the emotional reality of work that might otherwise be ignored, and to surface and acknowledge the emotional reality of work that might otherwise be ignored, is the discussion's purpose. Some members describe how they were impacted by work situations, while others show compassion and listen to their experiences. Genuine connections are built through this collective engagement.
Individuals are better able to look at each other with compassion and empathise when adversity is framed as collective. We are all suffering, but by working through this together, we are doing well. Groups engage in three critical processes.
As members share their experiences candidly and honestly, they come to see one another and the situation in more complex ways. They move away from simplistic labels and blaming that can arise during difficult times. They can come to see each other as having strengths and weaknesses rather than being completely right or wrong.
By sharing their lived experience, the group paints a picture of their situation in more realistic terms, and members can accept and be accepted as who they really are in that context, not the villain or hero of a simplistic story. This builds individual well-being by providing a sense of security, inclusion, and belonging and it also helps the group as a whole engage in more sophisticated and mature interactions.
Negative emotions can be overwhelming. It is difficult to think straight when you are in the grip of anxiety. The act of describing an emotional experience and receiving compassion and acceptance in return helps break the emotion down among the group members. The discussion helps members understand their experience and begin to process it. Knowing that other people are also suffering helps free them from shame. There is more capacity for clear thinking and problem-solving when members feel less overwhelmed by emotion.
As teams practice pauses, they become more aware of their own dynamics. They are able to understand each other and the situations they face in more nuanced ways. People learn to pause so they have time to reflect and to make decisions about how they will struggle together.
The connections that are so critical to well-being are strengthened by these three processes. In the deepest sense, members become part of a group that cares for them as unique, flawed, struggling and valued humans. There is no more important foundation for health.
Redemptive Design Associates is a design consulting firm specializing in the reuse of empty office spaces into artist space. Every potential project requires a design proposal from the consultants. They don't always win the contract. In the aftermath of such a loss, those involved often struggled with anger, sadness, and frustration, which resulted in recriminations, hidden blame, and other behaviors.
The firm developed a routine that involved a pause around failed pitches. Every time a pitch is lost, everyone gathers together to reflect on the experience. The conversations begin with members sharing their emotions after the pitch process. They come to see one another in more authentic and complex ways, as both contributing to and hurting from such an outcome.
They are better able to help each other through the letdown. The team can look at what happened from an operational perspective to improve their chances for the next proposal. The consultants are more connected because of their difficult experiences.
Finding the time and space to perform pauses may be difficult. There are many situations when connecting in this way is worth the effort.
It is possible to make a routine part of status meetings or pre-procedural briefings so that they can be adjusted in advance of when you most need it. How work is affecting people can be found in meetings. When do you feel engaged? Share what you observe and look for themes over time. Is there a single set of processes that are frustrating? People are feeling isolated. It is possible to name these: technology frustrations, or when clients drive us crazy.
Take a few moments to step away from the task and focus on what is happening on the team if you feel that group members are getting heated, uncivil, or are checking out. Call a time out and ask what people are experiencing, focusing first on getting them to tell their stories, and encouraging others to listen. It's important to acknowledge the validity of different experiences.
Don't jump to solution and problem-solving. Managers need to look at the conversation like a puzzle that they can fit together to understand the bigger picture. Individuals feel more connected when they go through that process. Before facilitating a conversation about improvements, ask how these experiences are impacting the group process. As the team suggests new ways of interacting and moves towards solutions, it's a good time to turn your attention back to the task at hand.
When you see it, insist on civility and compassion. This is not the time for judgement or blaming, so if you hear this creeping in or see more passive aggressions like eye rolling, call it out and set the norms. Praise people who show vulnerability and who show compassion, and make sure you are role-modeling non-judgmental listening.
Work that is rife with loss, like hospitals and public welfare organizations, offers the chance for people to develop rituals that enable emotions to be named rather than dismissed. These moments give the opportunity to speak with candor. Start sharing your own experience if you find that people are hesitant to do so. Sharing model vulnerability, how what has been lost affects you as a human being. There are no easy answers, so resist the temptation to reach for simplicity. To name hard-to-articulate feelings, acknowledge the pain you may be experiencing. Ask others to do the same.
In working with the palliative care unit of a large, northeastern U.S. hospital, we found that employees created a routine to deal with grief. At the end of the day, staff members would come together to talk about what it was like to lose a patient. The medical director kept the meeting focused on emotions and asked staff members what feelings they had after the patient's death. The medical director wanted to recognize all experiences and emotions as valid and understandable. Other unit members learned to do this for themselves.
Traditional wellness initiatives can be deepened and expanded to include pauses. Adding a focus on naming and working with the emotional realities of work can be done with yoga and meditation, book discussion groups, spin classes, and the like. There could be built-in periods of time for collective sharing. The activities of self-care can become vehicles for genuine connection in this way.
Pacific Life Re, a global financial services company, holds tea and talk meetings in London to discuss topics of common concern for their employees, including working from home alone, and caring for their mental health. These are hosted by one of the firm'swellness champions, but have no fixed agenda: the hosts simply hold the space for people to share their experiences and worries. Through participating in these gatherings, people feel less alone with their struggles, and see what they have in common with others at different levels and in different parts of the business.
Managers often say that they can talk about emotions at work. It takes leadership and practice to change the norm. We don't work that way because we don't know anything else from the past few years.
The emotional experience of work does not stop impacting how work gets done just because you don't want to talk about it. It's like ignoring an accounting error in the hopes that it will eventually go away. It doesn't change anything and leaves you less equipped to deal with consequences. Smart leaders encourage employees to surface and work together.
Our research shows that facilitating pauses throughout your work environment can make a difference that goes beyond improving individual well-being. Enhancing persistence and resilience, communication and knowledge sharing, and coordination and systems thinking are included.
There are serious threats to connections at work. Many organizations are returning to a new normal, which involves more remote work, more gig workers, and fewer opportunities to connect. Self-care will always be a part of mental health, but leaders who want to address employee well-being need to move beyond the individual-centered view of adversity. Genuine connection is required in the very heart of how work gets done. We acknowledge our collective ownership of suffering. We are both accountable for the work and the emotional experience of doing it when we come together for a collective purpose.