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Today I want to talk about increasing productivity in accelerated markets. For many companies, increasing work productivity is a clear priority. However, in companies that are facing accelerated or exponential change, this can become a problem.
Changing situations are no longer within the realm of what a person can physiologically handle. For leaders, in turn, the increase in information leads to stress that’s difficult to manage. That’s why today we have a brilliant article by Leah Tomlin where she talks about two crucial topics: burnout and productivity. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the connection between well-being, organizational health and productivity.
I hope you find it as interesting as I did!
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We have an economic crisis on our hands. The requirement for global productivity has rarely been so great. As the world recovers from the shock of a pandemic, and with ongoing war in Ukraine, the latest OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) report for 2022, paints a picture that is clear: productivity is key to future global economic recovery and growth.
Countries with higher productivity have greater scope for economic growth. It is also the case that organisations with greater employee productivity see better return on investment and greater organisational success.
“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything”
Paul Krugman, American Economist. Raising workplace productivity is clearly a priority for business and society.
Raising workplace productivity is clearly a priority for business and society.
Where are we going wrong?
Wellbeing and productivity are so closely correlated and inseparably connected that productivity and work-life balance predict each other (Hafner et al, 2015). Low mental or physical health leads to low productivity. Conversely, improving health and wellbeing leads to increased productivity. Crucially, in practice, workplace productivity programs negatively impact wellbeing (Isham et al., 2020). Therefore, we drastically need to rethink organisational productivity programs that are detrimental to wellbeing and in turn, ironically, detrimental to productivity.
Organisations need a more holistic approach to their productivity programs that place health and wellbeing of all employees and leaders at the heart of initiatives.
Remaining on the relentless busy treadmill leads to lower workplace productivity, poor efficiency and burnout (Dubale et al, 2019). The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) reveals that 10-15% of workers are officially burnt out. 50% of people are exhausted, ineffective and/ or disengaged with their work. The latter group is also running the risk of complete burnout. Statistics on burnout reveal a worrying post-pandemic increase globally. This poses enormous questions about workplace responsibility for individuals as humans, beyond their specific work duties.
Studies reveal the alarming impact that prolonged stress has on individuals. People who experience harmful levels of workplace stress over an extended period of time have raised levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. They are more likely to be exhausted, think irrationally, lose creativity, think negatively, overreact, be overly emotional, experience cardiovascular pathology and die prematurely.
Neuroscience shows us that chronic stress causes physical damage to the brain, which creates the foggy thinking, exhaustion and lack of emotional regulation that characterises burnot. When brain scans are compared from people who are subjected to uncontrollable workplace stress, with those who are not in overly stressful situations, there are very clear neurobiological repercussions of such stress (Savic et al, 2018). Chronic stress causes enlargement of the amygdala, an area of the brain that is old in evolutionary terms. It sits relatively central in the brain and is responsible for emotion, including fear, sadness and anger. It may explain the overly-emotional and reactive responses that characterise people in burnout states.
Sufferers of burnout have also been shown to experience other damaging changes to brain anatomy. The impact of accumulative workplace stress is similar to that seen in examples of extreme trauma. The connections between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) are weakened (Arnsten and Shanafelt, 2021). The latter region is responsible for logical thought, executive function and modulation of the emotional response. It figures that, with damage to the pFC, a person is less likely to be able to modulate their negative emotions, think logically or strategically.
Further studies reveal the impact of workplace stress on the hippocampus (Blixet al, 2013), an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Reduction in the size of hippocampal regions, with neuronal cell death marking such change in the burnt out brain, explains the difficulty in learning new concepts and being resilient to change during burnout.
The plethora of neuroscientific evidence paints a bleak picture for those suffering from accumulative workplace stress, and for those leaders and managers who have a responsibility and duty of care to their employees. But there is some good news for sufferers and leaders. The brain is a highly plastic organ that is able to change in response to environmental factors, meaning that through preventative and curative steps, the cerebral damage caused by chronic stress can eventually be reversed (Savic et al , 2018). However, this recovery or prevention doesn’t occur unless active steps are taken to avoid self-induced and societal pressures to power on through the tough times, always work hard and never give up. Burnout is a common medical condition that should be treated with the respect that it is long overdue.
Whether, as leaders, we are considering strategies to improve our own productivity or that of our wider team, it makes business sense to appreciate individuals holistically, and to encourage positive work-life balance if we are to ensure maximum impact on productivity.
Empowering individuals to prioritise and take responsibility for their own productivity is important for transformatory and sustainable improvement in organisational success. It’s important for all individuals to first raise self-awareness and assess the here and now across the 7 Core Areas of Productivity:
Once leaders have helped individuals to assess the current situation with their productivity, steps can be taken to help and encourage people to lead more balanced lives. This starts with leaders leading by example.
Wellbeing is frequently the thing people let slip when life becomes too busy. In reality, we need to focus entirely on our wellbeing for at least one hour each day unless, of course, we are too busy or stressed. When busy, we should focus on our wellbeing for longer. This requires assessing different elements of our lives and considering wellbeing in terms of the full array of physical, emotional, social, creative, intellectual, spiritual and domestic needs, as well as workplace wellbeing.
To stop burnout in its tracks, we must recognise early exhaustion/ overwhelm states such as tiredness, distraction, lack of direction or focus, negativity, cynicism, insomnia, anxiety, over-reliance on food/ alcohol or loss of interest in activities. Leaders must place their own wellbeing as their top priority. Only then are they able to model this and encourage wellbeing in their teams.
A positive mindset is our productivity super-power. It enables us to be adaptable, resilient, calm and controlled in the way we navigate life and leadership. It equips us with the ability to control unpleasant thoughts and feelings, and assists us in taking leaps outside our comfort zones. A positive mindset is a one-way road to success. Equipped with such a mindset, setbacks are not allowed to take an enormous toll.
Our mindset will determine how, as individuals, we will approach, process and resolve issues and problems. Developing a growth mindset requires us to be forgiving and patient of ourselves and others. Focussing on the effort and enjoying the journey is more beneficial than being overwhelmed by the required outcome. When overwhelm sneaks in, reset your expectations. Instead of looking up to the heavens and focussing on the top rung of the ladder, focus on the first step. This is where action and success begins. Grant yourself permission to fully focus on the first step, and concern yourself with the next step only when the first is complete.
A growth mindset is one which can recognise a crisis, put it into perspective and understand that there are better times ahead. A learning mindset allows a person to happily accept that they can learn anything and adapt to all eventualities. People with a growth mindset are therefore more resilient and can bounce back brightly from the brink of adversity.
Energising ourselves is a necessary enabler for productivity. With depleted energy, we are unable to work at any reasonable capacity. In the modern world, our brains are bombarded daily with data, news, people and their problems. These chaotic patterns of information can cause a prolonged stress response, overwhelm and burnout. Erratic and uncontrolled mental thoughts are fatal for productivity, and likely indicate we need a break.
Breaks are crucial to the working day. Neuroscience studies show us that we learn more profoundly when we take a break directly following a significant learning period. Neurons create new connections more readily during the sleep that follows intense learning than during the learning activity itself. The brain never actually rests, being increasingly active during sleeping hours; consolidating memories and new learning, keeping us breathing, maintaining our heart rates and more. However, studies show that a micro-break of as little as 60 seconds can benefit our working memory, mood and concentration capabilities (Heiland, 2021). Breaks and consistent 7-8 hours of high-quality sleep are fundamental to productivity, brain-functioning, learning and longevity.
Relaxation activities must also be actively pursued to help us switch off and re-fuel. In order to be the fully functional, creative and innovative machine that it is designed to be, the brain needs periods to de-stress. For this, people should pursue whatever meaningful relaxation they desire. Whether that involves finding somewhere quiet to meditate or while away several hours with a favourite books, playing an instrument, drawing a picture, enjoying a long walk in nature or going for a run, devoting time solely for those activities will energise and re-vitalise.
Defining boundaries is necessary within our work and across work/ life transitions. To maximise productivity, we need non-negotiable times set aside for deep, focussed work. We need to learn to say no to excessive expectations from others and to clearly define boundaries between our work and the rest of our lives.
Timeboxing during the working week, and the working day, helps focus energy and time in the right place to enhance productivity. Blocking out time is necessary for significant projects that really propel you towards those goals. This might include writing a report, creating a funding proposal, a business plan or a presentation. Keep firm boundaries around these non-negotiable times. Look at your calendar and set time aside for your leadership and life goals. Reserve parts of your week for meeting-free time.
It’s crucial to set healthy boundaries in expectations of yourself and others. A great way to clearly define the boundary between work and the rest of your life is to write your actions at the end of your work day, for the next day. This will allow you to more easily switch off, knowing that your actions for tomorrow are already determined.
Our habits and routines can determine our success or failure in life and work. Many people become so entrenched in negative habits that even a strong desire to change cannot shift them out of these repetitive behaviours. It’s tough to change habits, and in neurobiological terms it is true that we are creatures of habit. Our brains are wired to keep us in our comfort zones, where we feel safe and at ease. However, stepping out of our comfort zones and honing new habits is where our true success lies.
The secret to successful habit formation is to jump in at the deep end, before you have a chance to consider how cold the water might be. If we over-think something, it’s likely we will find an excuse not to do it. Make the commitment and declare it openly to gain accountability and certainty. Think about the benefits to your life of maintaining the habit and feeling the pending success.
A positive morning routine can set us up for a successful day. If this means sleeping in our running shorts and t-shirt to assist the likelihood of an early-morning run, then this is a really good habit to get into. Developing habits takes time, patience and determination. The secret is to do it incrementally and slowly over a period of time, and to get support from a coach, friend, accountability partner or group to help maintain momentum. With patience and support, those thoughts can be transformed into actions, which can be developed into successful productivity habits for life.
Success with productivity is less about how much we get done, but more about what we choose to get done. Prioritising our workload and home-lives is ever-complex as we are relentlessly bombarded with information, data, news, people and their problems. Mastering the arts of elimination, delegation, outsourcing, goal setting, planning and project-management are necessary to manage workload and ensure our time is valuably utilised.
Get better at making quick decisions about when to delegate or outsource work. This can save an immense amount of time, which is ultimately the most valuable currency you have. Passing work on to an expert in that field is one sure way to relieve your workload and your mind of unfinished business.
Creating the optimal business strategy should be prioritised, with smarter (not harder) working. Using the mathematical Pareto Principle, find the 20% of activities that have the 80% impact, and focus on these as your priorities. Use this free 90-Day Planner to simplify life and leadership and get clearer on goals and targeted daily actions.
The systems we have in our organisations enable people to function and for processes to run smoothly and transparently. This is vital for our own and others’ productivity. Our own individual systems and those we use for collaboration and accessing help are also vital for productivity and success.
Effective business planning is key to the success of your organisation. Leaders need goals and a strategic approach to ensure that the organisation’s mission is achieved. Systems and strategic plans should be in place to enable everyone in the organisation to understand their roles and responsibilities. Financial and administration systems must run smoothly and can be automated where possible, leaving leaders to focus on more strategic elements of leadership.
Journaling or keeping a reflection/ action diary is the pièce de résistance of productivity systems. It enables you to discard those long to-do lists that merely serve to pre-empt your failure. Nobody has time to get through 30 significant actions in a day. Instead, focus on 5 actions every day to achieve your goals. Write down these 5 actions in your reflection/ action diary, preferably at the end of the working day, in anticipation of the next day.
As everyone knows, things don’t always go to plan, so have people and systems in place to help you deal with disasters. Knowing who to go to for support, or who to delegate to when a problem is beyond your scope, should be automatic, to keep stressful mishaps from escalating. Make sure you have a rich network for advice, support and creative inspiration. Ask your network for help when you need it.
In our technological era, digital systems help immensely with automating and saving time. Research the best tech tools by looking online and asking your support networks what they find useful. Whether you require tools for email automation, business finance, project management, graphic design or a task board, there has never been a better time to find suitable aids that will propel your productivity, make life easier and free up your time.
When we are productive and fulfilled in life and work, we achieve more which gives us a sense of accomplishment and increased motivation. This, in turn, fuels further productivity. Ultimately, being productive makes us more positive and empowers us to achieve more ambitious goals. Assess your 7 Core Productivity Areas and receive a personalised report to help you propel your productivity, for a life and leadership that is calmer, more focussed, purposeful and rewarding. Once clear goals have been established, accountability and support will help you develop the best productivity habits and systems for life, for yourself and employees across your organisation.
From Enterprise Agility University, we hope you found our scientific newsletter useful, and we’ll see you next week.
Arnsten, A.F. and Shanafelt, T., 2021, March. Physician distress and burnout: the neurobiological perspective. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 96, No. 3, pp. 763-769). Elsevier.
Black, C.D. and Frost, D., 2011. Health at work-an independent review of sickness absence. Parliamentary review.
Blix, E., Perski, A., Berglund, H. and Savic, I., 2013. Long-term occupational stress is associated with regional reductions in brain tissue volumes. PloS one, 8(6), p.e64065.
Dubale, B.W., Friedman, L.E., Chemali, Z., Denninger, J.W., Mehta, D.H., Alem, A., Fricchione, G.L., Dossett, M.L. and Gelaye, B., (2019). Systematic review of burnout among healthcare providers in sub-Saharan Africa. BMC public health, 19(1), pp.1-20.
Hafner, M., van Stolk, C., Saunders, C., Krapels, J. and Baruch, B., 2015. Health, wellbeing and productivity in the workplace. A Britain’s Healthiest Company summary report” RAND Corporation Report.
Heiland, E.G., Tarassova, O., Fernström, M., English, C., Ekblom, Ö. and Ekblom, M.M., (2021). Frequent, Short Physical Activity Breaks Reduce Prefrontal Cortex Activation but Preserve Working Memory in Middle-Aged Adults: ABBaH Study. Frontiers in human neuroscience, p.533.
Isham, A., Mair, S. and Jackson, T., 2020. Wellbeing and productivity: a review of the literature.
Savic, I., Perski, A. and Osika, W., 2018. MRI shows that exhaustion syndrome due to chronic occupational stress is associated with partially reversible cerebral changes. Cerebral Cortex, 28(3), pp.894-906.