Stop! It won't be like before.

No, this is not another post-pandemic-new-normal article. Instead, it’s a call for employees to finally drink some clear wine: the usual calm and stability in everyday working life will no longer prevail - at least not as it used to. And that has an impact on the role and interaction of leaders.

Many companies have worked out new leadership understandings with their leaders in numerous seminars and workshops. Inevitably, leaders had to come to terms with their role and their own self-image.

This resulted in a general shift in focus from ME to YOU, from working IN the system instead of AT it, and from monologue to questioning and listening. In summary, leaders now ensure that employees can do their jobs, make their contributions, and see a bigger picture.

But another requirement is already emerging: they should help employees stay healthy. Why? And how do you do that?

The fear of being on the wrong side.

Companies encourage employees to get involved where they will have the most impact or feel the greatest satisfaction. They organize themselves to a large extent, consistently seek (positive) feedback, and primarily use digital media, platforms, and communities to do so. They are therefore always-on and in constant exchange and comparison.

The motto “the winner takes it all,” which applies above all to competition among start-ups, influences the behavior, loyalty and demands of employees: Who wants to be on the side of the non-winners? That’s why small successes are immediately publicized, certificate after certificate is ranked and considerable time is spent on self-promotion.

All this generates monstrous floods of information, enormously complex social environments and extremely dynamic social (and evaluative) networks. Ultimately, many employees experience unprecedented (social) pressure.

Example: Last year, a customer asked all employees about their individual perception of stress at work. The evaluation was surprising: employees between 20 and 25 years of age subjectively described themselves as the most stressed. However, the customer would have expected its (older) project managers to feel the most stress because they are in daily conflict between customer requirements, employee development and economic goals. The causes of this stress were, among other things, the inability to separate oneself (and not get bogged down), the fear of uncertainty (and therefore keeping many options open), and the need for constant positive feedback (and therefore working in the most attractive projects on the most exciting tasks possible - and, of course, doing this as perfectly as possible).

As long as companies launch or win exciting projects, they appear attractive to current and potential employees. This is because they want to learn new things and thus qualify themselves for the next challenges, to position themselves for other winners. If such projects are missing, employees become impatient and move on.

The fear of missing out.

FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”) promotes the subjective feeling of being overwhelmed by life in general and by work in particular. For people suffering from this fear, a well-solved task is less important than not missing anything (whereby “well” is to be understood quite relatively here, i.e. in relation to agreed criteria). Only if, for example, the deadline in a project demands the focus and full concentration of all employees, a substantial and emotional conflict of goals arises. This keeps employees caught in so-called paradox loops - without an individual contribution it is not possible (because it conveys significance), but with such a contribution it is also not possible (because it increases the risk of missing something).

Both of the fears briefly outlined here combine to promote mental exhaustion. Leaders are in an excellent position to recognize and address this exhaustion. Of course, in your role as leaders, you are not therapists. However, you are and will remain responsible for health in the workplace - even if it is increasingly shifting to private spaces right now.

I am in the privileged position of observing many leaders and talking to them about their challenges. In terms of health, I notice that they try to spare employees, i.e. reduce their workload, by taking over work themselves, or assigning it to other (more robust) employees - with, in my view, rather unfortunate consequences:

First, of all, you weaken yourself. Because you reduce your focus and thus your impact. Other issues are neglected, which will lead to further bottlenecks in the medium term.

Second, you weaken the (supposedly) more robust employees. Of course, we use the principle of load sharing in case of absences or vacation replacements. Knowing the limited duration helps to bear this situation better. Leaders often fail to define this time limit. In doing so, they facilitate a kind of two-tier society.

Third, you cement the belief precisely in the spared that things will get better again. And that is simply not the case - holding out is not an option. Isn’t it more a matter of (officially) saying goodbye to previous claims or expectations?

If leaders intervene gently (however well-intentioned), on the one hand they reduce the possibility of coming to this realization, and on the other hand they foster the hope that things will return to the way they were before. They should refrain from doing this, because they send the wrong signals for the further development of the employees.

In my opinion, a discussion about which existing demands stand in the way of healthy work is more promising. Maybe you start by having employees write down which unwritten laws apply in the team. Have you really tidied up and cleaned out your organizational unit? How well do you manage to address previously taboo topics or the Elephant in The Room? After all, if things aren’t going to be the same anyway, why should it be worth carrying old baggage?

Go a step further and ask employees what worries are weighing them down at work. Pay attention to the two fears outlined above. Then look for support options within the company or externally to strengthen individual resilience.

Possibly interesting: HBR article on the “exhausted workforce” (2022)

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