Article: How do we drive for delivery while taking care of our health?

Is it possible to push for performance and hit tight deadlines while taking care of yourself and the people around you? Or do we have to see mental health effects as collateral damage, just an unfortunate byproduct of an intense environment?

At Cross 8 we’ve been at the heart of some pretty intense changes over the past decade, and that experience has proved that supporting and leading our teams to enable good mental health is both the right thing to do and enables better delivery.

It’s been shown time and again: healthy workplaces are the most effective. But if you work in a high-pressure environment, it’s easy to overlook some of the warning signs and focus purely on delivering at any cost.

Mind, the mental health charity, estimates that 1 in 6 workers are suffering from mental health issues at any one time. A number like that means it’s safe to assume that you, or someone you know… even one of your team… will be suffering quietly as you read this.

But there are some simple things we can do as leaders to make sure that when you’re pushing hard to deliver, you’re not storing up problems for yourself or the people you have responsibility for.

 

We believe that supporting and leading our teams to enable good mental health is the right thing to do and enables better delivery.

 

 

Pay attention to possible triggers and you can intervene before things become unmanageable

 

Of course, not all mental health issues are related to work, but Mind suggests[1] some specific work-related factors that can exacerbate or trigger mental health issues in your staff:

  • people working long hours and not taking breaks
  • unrealistic expectations or deadlines
  • high-pressure environments
  • unmanageable workloads or lack of control over work
  • negative relationships or poor communication
  • an unsupportive workplace culture or lack of management support
  • job insecurity or poor change management
  • high-risk roles
  • lone working

And remote working can make it worse

Since that list was written many of us have moved to working from home almost full time, and while the flexibility it brings can help lots of people, according to a survey quoted in Forbes[2] 45% of workers said they felt less mentally healthy working from home.

Why would that be? We’d argue that the answers can be found in Mind’s list of triggers.

Take another look at the list and as you do consider the impact of working from home on each of them – to be fair deadlines probably haven’t got any tighter, and for most people there probably hasn’t been much change in how much control they have over their work – but every one of the others will have been increased through the pandemic.

We are all familiar with the fact that hours have stretched [3] over the last year, partly due to an increase in the working day (about 2 hours in the UK), and partly because we’re taking fewer breaks, but the impacts go further than that.

Without face-to-face contact managers lack the subtle clues about employee wellbeing that can be picked up from body language. That can’t help but have an impact on our ability to communicate effectively. We’ll all get better at it, but we’ve had millions of years getting used to communicating in person, we’re unlikely to be quite as good at the remote stuff in a year or two.

And from your team’s point of view how many times do you think they’ve overthought something they’ve delivered to you because they can’t see your reaction? Probably more than once.

On balance we think working from home is a great thing, at Cross 8 we’re proud that most of our workforce is distributed, but if we’re going to look after our people, we need to recognize the possible downsides that come with it.

What can you do about it?

There’s a good chance that reading the list of possible triggers above, many of us in leadership positions particularly those leading change, will have thought that lots of the things on the list are “just part of the job”.

And you certainly can’t single handedly prevent the next pandemic or get everyone back in the office tomorrow.

So, what can we do about it? Or to restate the question in the title: Can you really drive delivery without sacrificing anyone’s health?

Yes, you can.

Following the steps below won’t solve every problem, but they are simple concrete things you can do to make your environment more supportive.

 

1. Set reasonable deadlines

Perhaps you can’t push back the delivery date of a whole programme or enterprise-wide transformation to take account of a single individual’s difficulties, but you can make sure the deadlines you are in control of are reasonable

2. Have regular check ins

Schedule some and make others more informal. Ask open ended questions about how they’re feeling. And remember this is a key part of your job. Be there completely, no multi-tasking.

3. Be conscious of the example you’re setting

 If you send emails out of hours then include a line making it clear you don’t expect a response immediately. Keep the feeling of urgency for when it’s really necessary and your people will have the reserves to step up and deliver it for you.

4. Understand rather than solve

The urge to step in with a solution can be difficult for leaders, but sometimes just knowing you’re listening is enough. Take a trick from coaches and help your team find the answer themselves, don’t try to fix it for them.

5. Offer but don’t insist

Not everybody will want help. Your job is to provide an open space for them to ask for it. There might be times when you should insist on a team member taking a break or some time off, after all, it’s you who can move their work around or change deadlines, but the occasions when you can force any other solution on people are rare, and the times when it will be effective are even rarer.

6. Know what help is available

If you work in a larger organization the chances are high that you have a number of support options in place for your staff. Spend a bit of time learning what they are so that you can point people towards them.

7. Encourage your people to share something they enjoy outside of work

This doesn’t have to turn into a “show and tell” session, but just by being open about what you did at the weekend or evenings that wasn’t work related can make it clear to your people that it’s okay to have a life outside of work… and that there can be a clear distinction between the two, something that can become blurred when working from home

8. Learn a bit about the various types of mental health issues

You don’t have to become an expert but familiarize yourself with the sort of problem your people might encounter, and you’ll be better at spotting early signs, and more understanding when they crop up. You can find some good resources at the end of this article.

9. Concentrate on what rather than how

Give people ownership of how to deliver and it increases their agency and can reduce stress, allowing them to fit it in around their life. This does need to be done at the right time though, if someone is already struggling then it can be counterproductive and lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed.

10. Give praise

There’s no need to institute an “employee of the week” programme if it wouldn’t suit your team culture! But make sure you take a moment regularly to compliment team members one to one on a job well done, and don’t wait for the big things. It can be better and more effective to give small praise often but irregularly.

You don’t have personal responsibility to fix everybody’s problems, but if you’re a leader it is your job to look after your people.

Your goal is to build a culture where your people feel supported and appreciated. It won’t prevent every problem from occurring, but it will make it much easier to deal with the ones that do.

And the benefit of doing these things goes far beyond helping any one individual with their mental health. When your team sees that there’s support if they need it, they’ll be much more confident delivering when they don’t.

By looking after the 1 in 6 of us who need help right now, we’re motivating the other 5.

And finally…

 

We’ve focused here on helping your people because if you’re a decent leader it will usually be easier for you to think that way, but all these points apply just as much to you as they do to your team.

Remember, if you’re not in a good place yourself, you won’t be able to help your people deliver.