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Team building

Coaching corner: 8 ways to beat workplace exhaustion

IbyIMD+ Published 19 July 2021 in Team building ‚ÄĘ 7 min read

In our new regular feature, we offer expert guidance on how to handle stresses and strains in the workplace thrown up by the pandemic. 


In normal times, Nick, in his role as head of procurement, had regular in-person meetings with his country CEO and other regional directors. He worked long hours. He traveled regularly. Yet, now, with no travel and more time for family, he feels more exhausted than he ever did before.  

Then there‚Äôs¬†Joan,¬†a director of loans for¬†a bank, and boss to a team of 30,¬†who used to¬†spend¬†two days each week abroad. She¬†flew¬†from London¬†to¬†a¬†Scandinavian city¬†for meetings on Mondays, an emerging market (usually Turkey) on¬†Wednesdays.¬†On¬†Tuesdays,¬†she¬†met¬†with her direct reports.¬†Thursday¬†and¬†Friday¬†were¬†dedicated¬†to¬†focused work.¬†All of this¬†was¬†while¬†simultaneously¬†managing¬†her young family.¬†Sounds exhausting, right?¬†And yet, 18 months into the pandemic, with all of her usual travel suspended, she says: ‚ÄúI am so tired.‚ÄĚ Her team members, all still working remotely, are overstretched. She can tell that they are afraid to ask for help ‚Äď and yet she knows they need it. She says that managing each individual‚Äôs needs¬†has¬†taken its toll on her.¬†

I hear variations on the above themes in almost every coaching conversation I lead. The whole world seems exhausted by new challenges both at home and at work. 

The day after Adam Grant wrote about ‚Äúlanguishing‚Ä̬†in the¬†New York Times,¬†several¬†clients¬†sent¬†me the article¬†stating that this¬†word¬†captures¬†their mood. They could relate to the feeling of¬†‚Äúblah‚Ä̬†‚Äď trying to get things¬†done¬†but lacking energy,¬†motivation,¬†and¬†focus.¬†A typically energetic¬†banking executive¬†who lives by her¬†‚ÄúTo Do‚Ä̬†lists¬†said:¬†‚ÄúI stare at my list, knowing¬†it¬†is incomplete, but cannot figure out what is missing. Even so, I don‚Äôt know where to start¬†to have impact.‚Ä̬†

People are working longer hours and are depleted from all of the virtual meetings. In its 2021 Work Trends Index, Microsoft found that high productivity is masking an exhausted workforce. An engineering director based in the Netherlands, leading a team of 60 people , used to spend  two hours a day commuting. Now he spends these two hours in front of his computer, and without the boundary between work and home, after the kids are in bed, he logs back on for another one or two hours. His wife does the same. They wake up the next day and start all over again. 

The last 18 months have tested everyone’s resilience. We have experienced so much change, and the future remains uncertain. Will we continue to work from home, or are we going back to the office? What does a hybrid environment mean for my people and me? If I remain at home, will I be invisible and derail my career? Do I need to commute again? What happens if one of my direct reports does not want to come back to the office?  

Overshadowing all these concerns is the potential impact of the Delta variant and other future mutations of the virus and questions about whether the vaccines will be effective against them.  

Pervasive worries combined with continuous changes are exhausting. Most people and businesses thrive with a certain level of predictability and stability, and today there is very little of that. 

Through my conversations with leaders, I’ve seen some consistent patterns in how cumulative exhaustion is impacting work. 


Delayed decision-making 

In coaching sessions, leaders are sharing their struggles with decision-making, with around half reporting that they are delaying important decisions. When people feel stuck, have little energy, or are stressed, decisions feel harder. Leaders share that they are fearful of how their choices will adversely impact people, acknowledge that they have less information in the virtual world than before on which to base decisions, and are not clear about what work will look like in six months.  

However, when I ask my clients,¬†‚ÄúIf you had no restrictions right now, what would you do?‚Ä̬†they have¬†definite responses. In other words, they know¬†what their¬†‚Äúright‚Ä̬†answers¬†are. For one client, it¬†was¬†changing a project lead. For another, it was discontinuing a product line.¬†While¬†decisions¬†are hard,¬†indecisiveness¬†based on fear of making a mistake¬†exacerbates exhaustion¬†as the delays¬†undercut¬†their sense of competence.¬†Not¬†deciding¬†also¬†harmed¬†the team ‚Äď it left¬†people¬†struggling in their positions or dealing with the uncertain future. This also consumes energy¬†leaving people feeling depleted.¬†


Not asking for help 

At¬†the beginning of the pandemic,¬†leaders spent time¬†actively¬†checking in with their teams, asking if people were ok. There was a sense that ‚Äúwe were all in this together.‚Ä̬†Now, there is an assumption that we¬†should have learned¬†how to cope.¬†In a recent group coaching session, executives expressed the social pressure to¬†show¬†that they have¬†everything under control.¬†When¬†the¬†unspoken message¬†is that you¬†should be¬†stoic in¬†the¬†face of¬†challenges,¬†it is hard¬†to be vulnerable.¬†¬†

As a result, people are not seeking out advice on both personal and work issues. They are struggling alone longer, which may be contributing to the record numbers of burnouts many organizations are experiencing. If you cannot ask your boss for help, you will likely not advocate for your team or secure the resources you need.  If your peer cannot ask you for help, there is less collaboration and decreased efficiency. If your team cannot ask you for support, at best, they are struggling, and at worst, they are at risk for failure or burnout. If you cannot ask your team for support, you are modeling a go-it-alone, stiff-upper-lip attitude. 

Emotions are contagious. Positive energy generates more positive energy.

Feeling guilty about thriving 

Some of my clients are doing well. But when they tell me they are doing well, it has a confessional tone. They know people who are suffering, have lost a job, have died, or been seriously ill from COVID-19, and so are uncomfortable revealing that they are doing well. A year ago, Marie accepted a stretch assignment: she was promoted to lead a trading unit of an energy company. The unit she was taking over was notorious for being hard to manage. She is proud of how many personal risks she has taken this year and is seeing positive results. Yet her boss is too busy to notice, 18 months of working from home has isolated her from her peers, and some of her friends are struggling in their roles. Therefore, she finds it hard to share her success. Marc, an HR professional, is proud that he was able to launch a completely new program virtually. Given how some of his colleagues are suffering from Zoom fatigue, he is reluctant to widely share what…

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