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future of work health technology

#41: Burnout culture is alive and well. How about you?

Thinking big 💡

I am not just busy; I am being overwhelmed by an onslaught of requests like yours… 

The pioneer of workplace burnout research is swamped with work. Christina Maslach, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, first studied burnout in the 1970s and has been searching for solutions since. She was busy before the pandemic, but now… her inbox has exploded.

I found myself apologising last week when a client called to chase me for invoices. ‘I’m a bit concerned you might need groceries… You can send me this month’s and last month’s if you like…’ Usually, I’m on it – I love invoicing clients, but right now, I’m overwhelmed and behind on admin. I have over 6,000 emails, as I said last week. 

It’s been a double shift since Xmas, and it took this tweet from the Journalists’ Charity to remind me of that. 

@JournoCharity

I’ve been reading lots of articles about pandemic burnout – it’s our anniversary, but burnout has been a silent issue for some time. Interesting to read this piece in The Atlantic on how burnout is technically a work problem.

Research suggests we tend to feel more stressed when we face conflicts about our various roles—mother, worker, friend to a frazzled co-worker, daughter to an anti-vaccine parent. And right here is the role conflict plague.

Three million American women have dropped out of the workforce since the pandemic began because they are shouldering the burden of all these different roles.  

It points out there are plenty of wellness hacks to help us push through the pandemic, but according to burnout experts, it’s a problem created by the workplace, and changes to the workplace are the best way to fix it. The World Health Organisation defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that’s not been successfully managed.

We’re in the thick of the ‘shecession‘, and globally, women’s job losses due to Covid-19 are 1.8 times greater than men’s. According to McKinsey’s survey, one in four women said they were thinking about reducing or leaving paid work due to the pandemic, citing company inflexibility, caring responsibilities and stress. 

High status doesn’t insulate women from stress and burnout. Senior-level women are significantly more likely than their male peers to consider dropping their hours or dropping out of the workforce because of the burnout associated with being “always-on” and juggling multiple responsibilities during the pandemic. BBC Worklife.

As the McKinsey report shows, companies are stepping up, but many don’t address the underlying causes of stress and burnout—the childcare crisis and a need for flexible working at all levels of work. We still have outdated views of women in the workplace and see child giving as a female function, and care work is still low paid and undervalued.

Companies can do more—childcare subsidies should be the norm, not a job perk – and employers that offer this will attract and retain top talent. People give more and are loyal to employers when they feel valued and cared for.


The advice 🤔

Path For Life

I heard Jeanette Bronée talking about burnout and self-care in the workplace. She is a workplace wellbeing strategist and on a mission to make self-care part of business culture. She is hugely passionate about her work and what she said resonated with me.

Self-care is an essential skill in the future of work. Burnout is probably the most disruptive issue that we have to deal with in work culture, yet we don’t really know what to do. We’re focusing too much on the symptom of burnout rather than looking at the root cause.

I had burned out twice by the time I was 40 years old. And to no surprise. I was young, ambitious, and I expected my body to be there for me.

And she’s not alone. 7 out of 10 millennials burn out before they’re 40.

We need to foster the mindset that burnout is a work company problem to fix, not an individual issue.

The future of work requires us to change the way we think about performance and productivity. Even though time is our greatest challenge, health is the foundation for peak performance that can transform the workplace from a burnout culture running on stress and survival mode to a culture driven by care, purpose, focus and engagement.

‘Self-care is not for after-work’ – find ways to give yourself microdoses during the day. And it’s not about ploughing on: ‘We need to redefine resilience with Covid – it doesn’t mean to keep pushing through, it means to be supported.’

It’s time to rethink work culture – burnout culture is not working. And a warning that we may be heading to another version of it virtually – the next burnout – if we don’t get the balance right now.

Self-care can’t wait. As the last year of the pandemic has shown, the world is speeding up, but we’re not robots – our bodies are still running on the same system.

We think of self-care for when we make it, but we’ll make it faster if we practice self-care. It’s a choice. We can hustle because we practice self-care.

We can be successful and healthy; it shouldn’t be a choice between the two.

And there’s a direct link between individual self-care and the health of an organisation.

Someone said: ‘If I want to suffer, I’ll go back to being an employee in the corporate world.’ 

That makes me sad. Is this the world we want to bring our kids into?

More resources on Jeanette’s website, Path for Life, and she’ll be speaking about how we can fix work at the Self-employed Summit on April 12 & 13. 

Here are some practical things you can do to help prevent burnout and be your best. Thanks to Jeanette Bronée, Nilufar Ahmed, The Worldwide Association of Women Journalists & Writers, and the Society of Freelance Journalists – excellent events this week on mental health.

There’s a lot of help out there. 🙏

On work routine: 

• Start with the basics – create a work schedule that integrates basic care, water, food, sleep and have structured work hours during the day.

• Fake commute: We need physical movement to prepare our brain and body for the next task. We need structure and separation. Build activity into your day. Try a standing desk. 

• Power Pause – check-in: where am I right now, and what do I need to be more focused and have more energy? Get into the habit of giving yourself microdoses of self-care during the day.

• Have a personal board of advisors – mates, colleagues – who will look out for you.

• Take a nap – it’s better to take a 10-minute nap than have a coffee as it calms you down. The Nap Ministry is on a mission to bring back the culture of napping. ‘We believe rest is a form of resistance and reparations.’ 

• Create a compliments folder – log every compliment you receive, including the date and who said it. Kudos – You’ll instantly feel better.

• Put your work stuff in a box and pack it away end of the day.

Tech is one of our biggest stressors: 

• Be mindful of your email use and keep ’em short and succinct. Respond to emails at set times and set an autoresponder.

• ‘The pandemic is sending our brains conflicting messages. With video calls, faces are within 50cm of us, and this tells our brain that these are close or intimate friends when instead they are colleagues or strangers. It’s tiring. Avoid back-to-back meetings – we need time to pee, hydrate, and reset our brains.’

• Work on one thing at a time. Close additional tabs on the browser, clear your desktop, turn off notifications.

• When did you last have a proper belly laugh? We forget to have fun at work – play music while replying to emails.

• Make time in the day for casual chat that isn’t work-related – have a virtual lunch and use tech in different ways. 

What can you do differently from tomorrow? 


Go deeper 🛠

💡 The Maslach Burnout Inventory™️ – take the test.

🕵🏻‍♀️ The Self-investigation – A free online stress management and digital wellness program from Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Mar Cabra, Kim Brice, and Aldara Martitegui. 

🎧 Managing Burnout – Women at Work podcast, Harvard Business Review with Mandy O’Neill, an expert on workplace wellbeing. When was the last time you had a proper belly laugh? Great discussion. 

💻 Path for Life, Jeanette Bronée – Resources for people and companies to achieve better work-life quality. Jeanette is speaking at the Self-employed Summit on April 12 & 13. 

📚 Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen. Loving her newsletter, Culture Study – Imagine Your Flexible Office Work Future, and looking forward to her new book on the future of work.


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Leopard print, always. Worry less and rock a red lip. Remote work evangelist, problem solver, internet person.

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Categories
future of work remote working Social media technology

#40: A World Without Email

A World Without Email Reimagining Work in the Age of Overload (or the hyperactive hive mind

Email is making us miserable. By trying to be more efficient, we’ve accidentally deployed an inhumane way to work.

Cal Newport

Thinking big 💡

I have a love-hate relation with email. Love the convenience of it as a messaging tool but hate stuff piling up and having to go through it all. 

6083 in my personal Gmail account 😱 

Over half the world population uses email in 2021. The total number of business and personal emails sent and received per day will exceed 319 billion in 2021 and is forecast to grow to over 376 billion by 2025. Despite the growth of chat apps, we still use email, and you need an email address for most online activity. I spend most of my day in work inboxes – it’s where the magic happens – sign off, editing, documents because it’s faster and in real-time—the ping-pong game…like a slot machine. 

The overall feeling is low-level anxiety like my work is never done.

  • We check our emails every six minutes 
  • Knowledge workers receive and send an average of 126 emails every day 
  • We spend an average of three hours a day on email

A growing body of research on the effect of email suggests banning or putting restrictions on email can dramatically increase individual productivity and reduce stress. Companies have also taken action to reverse the trend. Thierry Breton, CEO of the French information tech company, Atos Origin, noticed his employees were distracted by constant emails, so he took steps to eliminate what he saw as adverse effects on productivity. In 2011, he announced he was banning email and wanted Atos to be a ‘zero email company within three years. 

We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives. We are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organisations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.

Thierry Breton, CEO, Atos Origin

The solution was not to ban electronic communication outright for over 70,000 employees; instead, they built a social network organised around 7,500 open communities working on collaborative projects. Atos hasn’t got rid of email entirely but reduced it by 60%, increasing their margins and reducing administrative costs. 

The movement to protect leisure time is gaining ground. The EU parliament voted massively in favour last month of a resolution calling on the European Commission to propose a law allowing digital workers the ‘right to disconnect’ outside of work to reduce burnout. Research shows people who work from home are more than twice as likely to surpass the maximum of 48 working hours per week. And we’re putting in more hours since Covid – two a day on average.

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in the Age of Overload

Penguin Books

Last Friday, The New Yorker published an excerpt from Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email. Cal, aka Mr Deep Work, is a Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and the New York Times Bestselling author of seven books. 

The chapter focuses on an aspect of overload culture that isn’t talked about much – that email is making us miserable. The more time we spend emailing, the less happy and more stressed we become. What makes this a game-changer is that Cal is putting the onus on companies to make top-down changes rather than focusing on the individual as per earlier books. As Peter Drucker said back in the 70s, knowledge workers are autonomous, but only to a point.

As a freelancer, you can create your own systems and habits to manage information, but it’s not going to make much difference if your clients don’t work in the same way. 

The hyperactive hivemind 

Our workplaces are set up for convenience, not for getting the best out of us. We must be switched on to multitask with knowledge work, which doesn’t fit in with creative, deep thinking. Neuroscientists tell us our attention is single-tasked, and it’s not productive to switch from one task to another. This is making us miserable. 

It mismatches with the social circuits in our brain. It makes us feel bad that someone is waiting for us to reply to them. It makes us anxious.

Cal Newport

Cal describes this workstyle as the ‘hyperactive hivemind’ based around unstructured communications via email and IM and meetings that dominate our day. Email is fine for short communications as intended, but it’s a terrible knowledge management system. 

How do we tackle the hivemind and do our best work?

Cal says we need a more linear approach to workflow. Doing one task at a time to allow the brain to switch contexts – with fewer interruptions from email & IM. One study found (via BBC Worklifeon average, it takes us 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain a deep focus after an interruption

We can learn a lot from how software engineers operate – extreme programming, Scrum & Agile methodologies. Working on one product for a period of time and giving it your whole focus. A more intense, shorter day of deep work with no ad hoc tasks works better with how our brain operates. Try applying Sprint methodology to your creative work – pitches, ideas. 

Work on the productivity of the knowledge worker has barely begun. Globally, the world has more than 1 billion knowledge workers, so we’re well overdue for a rethink & revolution.

It’s coming!!

The next five years will see an insane amount of change and we’ll be embarrassed that we opted for ease over efficiency with email. There’s a lot of interest in getting rid of the hyperactive hivemind to produce higher quality products and services because money and productivity are on the line.

Companies that require their workers to be ever wired and working on multiple tasks will fall behind companies that prioritise more in-depth, slow creative work.

It’s a radical and bold vision – a world without email – that could make you happier and more productive. As Caroline Sauvajol-Rialland, the author of Infobesity, says, information overload is a cultural crisis.

There’s this great challenge of lundimanche that we must tackle, – the French portmanteau word for the blurring of Sunday into Monday. 

Caroline Sauvajol-Rialland

It’s time to change how we communicate at work. 

The advice 🤔

  • Use Calendly instead of emails to arrange meetings to reduce the back-and-forth comms.
  • Use shared project management tools like Trello, Dropbox or Flow to organise tasks and share links so your team know what you’re working on, can see status updates and add comments – it reduces the pressure on your inbox. 
  • Basecamp has ‘Office Hours’ – if someone has a technical question for a given expert, he or she can’t shoot an email and has to wait until the expert’s next office hours to ask a question.
  • Get rid of personal email addresses and have a team/project email so everyone can respond. 
  • Try Scrum/Agile methodology – combines working in intense sprints (1-4-week projects) with daily 15-minute standing meetings to get things done. Everyone gets a chance to speak and ask for help. Pin coloured notes to a board to show commitments, so there’s no ambiguity.

If it works for 12+ million software developers…

Go deeper 🕵🏻‍♀️

🎧 The James Altucher Show – A World Without Email with Cal Newport.

💻 The New Yorker: Email is Making Us Miserable and The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.

📹 LinkedIn Live: Journey Further Book Club with Cal Newport – A World Without Email, March 16. 

📚 Under New Management by David Burkus – the companies outlawing or at least restricting email and getting more done.

🎤 National Union of Journalists event, March 8 – a chat with John Crowley, co-author of the Journalism in Time of Covid survey, on freelancing and mental health.

Guests welcome – email me!! if you’d like to come.