Are you on the path to burnout at work? Here are some steps you can take

High performance at work doesn’t have to come at the expense of personal wellbeing

The authors of a new book are no strangers to the pressures of high-powered environments. Photograph: iStock

The authors of a new book are no strangers to the pressures of high-powered environments. Photograph: iStock

 

Thousands of books have been written about performance, and thousands more about wellbeing. The Performance Curve by Laura Watkins and Vanessa Dietzel, which has just been published by Bloomsbury Business, puts them together because the authors believe that maximising one’s potential at work and being in a positive state of wellbeing go hand in hand.

Watkins and Dietzel say effectiveness and wellbeing can be synergistic and that, when combined, they are a powerful force for increased performance. In a nutshell: feel good, work better.

Wellbeing is a core theme of this book, but its authors don’t come at it in a touchy-feely sort of way. They take a fact-based approach and draw on examples from neuroscience, psychology and their own experience of dealing with corporate high-flyers to add weight to their argument for a more holistic approach to performance.

They also interviewed a slew of people from different backgrounds for their insights, including cellist Yo-Yo-Ma; the boss of Krug Champagne, Maggie Henriquez; and the founder of leading Indian business school ISB, Pramath Sinha.

The authors are no strangers to the pressures of high-powered environments, having worked for McKinsey and the Boston Consulting group respectively before striking out on their own. Watkins co-founded McKinsey’s European leadership group and has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Cambridge. Dietzel has spent the past 20 years working in the field of individual and organisational performance.

From watching clients grapple with the complexities of the modern business environment, Watkins and Dietzel could see that many were caught between performance and personal wellbeing, and that the trade-off was often exhaustion and an underlying dissatisfaction with life.

Constant, full-on work pressure drives people into a situation where they are constantly pushing beyond their natural reserves and, while this hyperactivity might look like the epitome of productivity, it slowly erodes their ability to allocate attention and energy effectively.

Time out

Not taking time out always has consequences, the authors say, because, “brain scans show that chronic stress weakens not only the functioning but also the structure of our brains, particularly in the areas that are important for memory, emotional regulation and self-control”.

How can one convince the corporate equivalent of the Duracell bunny to step off the hamster wheel? “The first step is to stop seeing performance in the narrow sense of just getting results and to broaden the definition to match what someone wants out of life in general,” says Watkins.

“In our experience the best results don’t come from surface ‘hacks’ – for example, writing better to-do lists or ‘eating the frog first thing in the morning’ (doing the toughest task of the day first). They come from things that help evolve our inner operating system or that deep wiring in our brain that guides how we function and affects our mindset, emotions and habits.

“In food terms it’s the difference between a crash diet and making sustainable changes to what we eat.”

The advantages of rebooting the inner operating system include the ability to make better choices about interpreting and interacting with the world, being able to deal with more complexity with less effort, better outcomes and improved life satisfaction. Just 15 minutes spent going down new routes of inquiry can lead to different insights and avenues for action and, at the back of the book, there is a “catalyst toolkit” to kick-start the process.

Watkins adds that while some will resist the idea that they need to recalibrate, very often they know deep down that something needs to change. To get them started, Watkins frequently turns to neuroscience because it provides the empirical evidence some people need to buy in.

“Having the brain conversation makes people aware of what’s happening when their brain is constantly in fight-or-flight mode and how this can affect the quality of their decision-making,” she says. “Getting recognition is the start. From there you can move on to challenge habits and mindsets.”

Small changes

The Performance Curve has plenty of suggestions about how to change the bigger picture, but Watkins says even small changes can make a difference.

“Just before going into a potentially stressful situation or meeting, pause and focus momentarily on the breath. Inhale for a count of three and exhale for six. Even something as simple as this can shift the balance towards a more restful state and create a bit of space,” she says.

“Expressive writing (also called journalling), where someone records their thoughts at a given point, can also be hugely beneficial even if it’s only done for five or 10 minutes a few times a week. It may not sound significant but there is a strong evidence base to support its positive impact on mental and physical wellbeing.”

It looks like Watkins and Dietzel got their timing with this book just right, as Covid has created an appetite for a better work-life equilibrium at an individual level, while shepherding employees successfully through the past 18 months of uncertainty has also pushed wellbeing in its broadest sense right up the corporate agenda.

“The challenges employees and managers have faced during the pandemic have been universal,” says Watkins. “It has definitely made people more aware of balance in their lives and that it makes sense to reach for help before they burn out rather than when it has already happened.”

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