Battling burnout: A fight against artificial urgency

2020_03_Burnout-india-heroIn 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. While it hasn’t yet been classified as a medical condition, if the latest studies are anything to go by, it is well on the path to becoming one. According to a 2018 Gallup study of 7500 employees, 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes. In 2019, Clockify claimed that 7 of 10 people have contact with burnout with 5 of 10 experiencing burnout. As per the 2020 O.C.Tanner Global Culture report, 79% of all employees are suffering from mild, moderate or severe burnout.

In an age of time trackers and productivity hacks, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find time for true leisure or, in the words of William Henry Davies, ‘stand and stare as long as sheep or cows.’ After all, every moment spent staring is a minute lost. While you may be led into believing that burnout is a case for the weak, a little attention to the symptoms will show you that it is more widespread that it should be. A lack of focus, depression, anxiety, feeling tense, bursts of anger, lethargy, loss of sleep and appetite are all signs that you might be a victim of burnout.

One way to escape burnout may be to switch jobs, but when a phenomenon is as widespread as this, you are likely to encounter burnout everywhere you go. Is there then a way to escape burnout or does one accept it as an inevitable new-age disease?

With organizations understanding the financial impact of burnout, an increased focus on mental well-being is only a start. The only way to truly tackle burnout is by identifying the accelerators and while there are many, artificial urgency is a big culprit that can be easily fixed.

Artificial urgency is the art of making something that isn’t urgent, urgent. As easy as that. If you have a deadline due on 15th February & you set yourself a deadline of 5th, that’s artificial urgency. The benefit of incorporating artificial urgency is that it reduces the chances of missing deadlines. If you embrace this strategy in select areas of life, it helps. However, if it is applied to everything in life, it loses its superpower. Artificial urgency thrives in the pessimistic view of self that assumes the worst in you. The concept hinges on the belief that you will inevitably miss deadlines. What makes artificial urgency worse is when your management begins to believe in the same pessimistic view. How many times has your manager or you as a manager set unnecessarily aggressive goals in an attempt to meet imaginary deadlines?

5 ways to stop artificial urgency

We are surrounded by artificial deadlines and made to believe that the world ends if we don’t meet them. Tackle this disease and you reduce the chances of burnout almost instantaneously. The good news is that dealing with artificial urgency is deliriously simple especially if you are a manager. Here are a few ways how:

1. The rule of one: You are only allowed to set one deadline for the team and one per individual per month for the first three months. It then dwindles to one per quarter. All other deadlines are either company set or deadlines your team members set for themselves.

If the appraisal tool is closing and you need a report submitted within the same month, figure which one you want to set a deadline for. You can’t do both. If you choose to set a deadline to review the appraisal entries a week before the tool closes, then the team submits the report to you on a date they decide and vice versa.

At first it will feel like the world will fall apart and nothing will ever get done on time. Over time, you will realize that the world doesn’t fall apart, it’s ok for some things to slip through the crack and your anxiety begins to fade. Also, you will realize your team is far more responsible than you give them credit for.

2. 24 hour SLA (Service Level Agreement): It’s natural to expect people to reply to you immediately or within the hour. It is tempting then to walk up to them or drop them a message to accelerate the response time. However, these actions are also stressing your team out. Resort to the messaging, calling and walking up only once 24 hours have passed since you dropped the note. If you expect a faster response, tag the email as ‘urgent’. Again, your team is smarter than you give them credit for.

3. Don’t pass the pressure: A bigger temptation is to say that you only set artificial deadlines or chase after immediate responses because your boss expects you to do so. If you didn’t, they’d be unhappy. They set aggressive deadlines, and you just work backwards from them. The excuses are endless. Don’t! Park what you can at your level and pass only a trickle of the pressure down. That’s your job as a manager – to be able to pushback and prevent your team from burning out especially as a result of artificial urgency. Maybe pass the pressure back upwards. Question them (nicely) as to why the deadlines are what they are. If they can’t come up with a valid reason, they are likely to acknowledge and change their expectations.

4. ‘No meeting’ blocks: This is gaining popularity in recent times. However, instead of you deciding a no-meeting time block for the entire team, let them pick their own no-meeting time blocks. It gets a little confusing at first, but you will realize that employees blocking 4 hours in their own calendars between 8am to 8pm (and beyond when necessary to address time-zones) doesn’t really make scheduling that difficult. What it does is give them time to actually get stuff done. For example, I do not take meetings before 9:30am, between 12:30pm – 1:30pm, between 6pm to 8:30pm and then after 11pm. It makes for a better life. Believe me, it’s possible.

5. Working PTO (Personal Time Off): To my dismay, this is gaining popularity too. I learnt about this term towards the end of last year and have since seen it in action a fair number of times. Apparently while PTO refers to one disconnecting from all things work, working PTO refers to time-off where you will be intermittently checking emails and replying to them. My advice – ban working PTO’s – not only the explicit use but the implementation too. It is not cool to expect someone on time off to check emails or be available on calls. Yes, I will say it again, nothing will fall apart. After five years of believing I was indispensable, I went on my first trek and dispelled all anxiousness related to zero mobile network. I came back to reality and everything was fine. Be a better boss and smack anyone who dares respond to emails when on leave.

While it is true that managers have more control over artificial urgency, an individual contributor has a fair bit of control too. Now that the WHO has embarked on the journey to provide an evidence-based guideline on mental well-being at the workplace, we will soon be able to factually confirm our many hypotheses and finally work towards truly making the workspace a better place.

P.S: This post was first published here.

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