Who guards the guardians?


The effects of an always on culture are detrimental to C-Suite HR executives mental wellbeing writes professional certified integral coach Trish Lees.

There is little doubt that mental wellness is a priority for the majority of HR leaders and a number of leading indicators point to it staying an integral part of every organisation’s employee value proposition. In the midst of this new crisis, combined with what is fast becoming an always-on culture, it is critical that HR leaders give themselves permission to disconnect – and recharge.

One of the C-Suite HR executives I am currently coaching is running on empty, and finding it difficult to sleep. Every time I see her, her shoulders are a little tighter and her jaw a little more clenched – she openly admits to feeling exhausted.

Our coaching sessions are focused on how she can support and lead her team effectively through yet another restructure. However, I know how important it is for her to consider which of her habits and practices are limiting her capacity to be present, energised and engaged.

Every middle, senior and executive leader who I have met or coached wants to contribute meaningfully at work. They want to show up and support their teams to grow and deliver quality work.

And yet, I am seeing unprecedented levels of overwhelm, stress and burnout with these leaders. And we’re only a few months into the year!

A significant reason for this is the consequence of the always-on culture that has emerged over the past few years.

As guardians of the people, with high levels of responsibility for the wellbeing of employees, HR professionals may feel even more obliged to be available whenever people need them.

According to a study by Deloitte, HR professionals are among the top five professions with the highest levels of stress and burnout. Further research suggests that many senior leaders don’t purposefully and mindfully disconnect.

The reality is that working on a laptop in bed, being available to answer emails, Whatsapp and Slack messages at random times of the night and over weekends does not bode well for energy, vitality and good quality sleep.

The always-on culture seriously undermines both wellbeing and productivity.

While I encounter many examples of committed leaders who are struggling to find a way to disconnect, I am also engaging with those who are successfully implementing strategies and boundaries for skilful disconnection.

This, ironically, facilitates the opportunity for deeper connection and reconnection. Connection to themselves, and more meaningful connection, support and presence for the people they lead.

Following are the top practices that I have come across for senior leaders to give themselves permission to protect their own mental health first before helping others.

  • Set team norms for after-hours communication

Build a culture in which considerate communication is the default and where expecting an immediate response after hours is the exception – not the rule. Have conversations with the team where clear communication expectations are discussed and agreed. Agree on operating principles that shape team members’ interactions and alleviate the pressure to check emails during dinner or frantically type up responses to questions that could wait until morning. Include a common definition on what constitutes an emergency. We are in the habit of thinking that all problems are emergencies, they are not. A message that conveys a team norm you could consider: “If you get an email from me outside your working hours, it’s because I’m sending it at a time convenient to me. I don’t expect you to read or reply until your working hours.”

  • Give yourself permission to disconnect

The key word here is permission. This may mean you need to review your beliefs and assumptions. Giving yourself permission to disconnect is not lazy or irresponsible, it is an act of service to yourself and the people that you love and lead. Productivity and performance is directly linked to the quality of your focus and energy, which is directly linked to your ability and choice to disconnect, recover and rest. Intentionally give as much attention to your time off, as you do to your time on.

  • Intentionally set boundaries

Be intentional about when and how you will connect and disconnect. Have a clear agreement with yourself about when you will close your devices and switch off at the end of the day. If you choose to work in the evening or over the weekend, be clear and committed about the start and finish time. Consider a routine tech detox too. Specific times where you are totally disconnected from all forms of technology. Once a week for a few hours or a day can be a game changer. Try it, you may even begin to enjoy it!

  • Build rest and recharge into your schedule

I notice that many of the leaders I coach have not considered the difference between resting and recharging. They are not the same thing. Resting typically refers to taking a break from physical or mental activity to relax. It can involve sleeping, taking a nap or simply lying down to rest. It is important because it allows the body and mind to recover from stress and fatigue. Recharging on the other hand refers to activities that help restore energy and vitality. This could mean spending time in nature, engaging in learning something that interests you, engaging in a hobby or something creative or even practising mindful breathing and meditation. Even a one minute break to stretch and take a few deep breaths can give you a boost. Recharging helps to reduce stress, increase focus and productivity and improve energy and mood.

You need to prioritise both in order to be at your best. Often HR professionals in particular are focused on caring for and supporting others. So, I encourage you to regularly disconnect with the external world and connect with your internal world – there’s a lot of wisdom waiting there.

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