Leading through crisis: Avoiding top team burnout

The last nine months have been tough on everyone, with our experiences of the pandemic and lockdowns being highly personal. Those on the frontline, whether in healthcare or other essential roles, have been putting themselves at risk, day in, day out, to keep the rest of us going. For those working from home, the winter months ahead have the potentially to be particularly gruelling. Many remain on furlough – or have lost their jobs entirely. And for business and HR leaders, the overwhelming feeling is one of intense, draining fatigue. We are all worn out.

The CIPD’s recent report, written with Professor Veronica Hope Hailey, emeritus professor at the University of Bath, tells the story of responsible business and trustworthy leadership through the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, through the eyes of 60 C-suite leaders, including HRDs. To celebrate its release, we held an event with Professor Hope Hailey and CIPD CEO Peter Cheese, to discuss the report and its findings with almost 80 HR leaders.

Facilitating this discussion, what struck me was a clear sense that the hard work – even the worst – is yet to come. Responding to coronavirus and the first nationwide lockdown was anything but easy, but leaders and organisations were carried on a wave of adrenaline, good will and community spirit. Organisations were able to digitise rapidly. Agility moved from buzzword to reality, because we had no choice. But as one HRD interviewee reflected in the report: “There’s only so long you can ride on goodwill. It will be a big challenge to give staff some work–life balance back.”

Finding that balance will be equally important for leaders themselves. As Professor Hope Hailey said at the event: “I’m really quite concerned with how tired people are… Going into a recession with a top team that is burned out is not a good place to be. People should be able to say they are tired and take time off without judgement.” She advocated exploring the possibility of ‘respite breaks’ for leaders and elevating high potential talent to share new ideas and bring much-needed innovation.

It can be tempting as a leader to feel you have to be always ‘on’, always available in case something else ‘unprecedented’ happens (and looking back, it seemed that was happening every few hours between March and June). But it is clear now that we are in this situation for the long haul, and leaders need to be able to strike a balance between being accessible and looking after themselves.

This is perhaps especially true for HR leaders, who need to ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’. You cannot support others if you are not supporting yourself, and in the months ahead we will need to be stepping up even more to support an exhausted and fractured workforce. Our own personal resilience and wellbeing will be vital.

One HR director at the event shared that she is on “a personal mission to slow down”. She reflected that she had never been as available as she was right now, in front of a screen rather than on a plane or train. She had realised: “The faster I work, the faster everyone else works around me.” Leaders have to role model that it is acceptable, even preferable, to slow down, to not be constantly available, to create boundaries. Otherwise, how will any of us get through another year of working in this way?

HR leaders also need to try and create space for more strategic long-term thinking. The HR role has been dragged towards the operational during this crisis, sorting out issues like making the workplace COVID-secure (as several HRDs have said to me, they never expected to be having so many conversations about toilets). But being bogged down in the tactical detail can mean losing the capacity to think bigger. Our organisations and people need leaders to be thinking long-term, rather than making knee-jerk, potentially damaging, decisions.

We have an opportunity to use this reset to think differently, to get creative. Professor Hope Hailey urged HR leaders not to “lose the moment” and not to lose hope. While the next few months are set to be even more challenging with painful cuts, we need to hold onto the more compassionate and humane leadership style that has emerged in many quarters. “We’ve shown we can change, so let’s keep some of that momentum while still making tough decisions,” she said.

It won’t be easy, but HR has proved itself so far through this pandemic. In the words of Peter Cheese: “This is a human crisis, which put people front and centre of the business agenda. HR has been central to how organisations have had to adapt. We should be proud of what we’ve done.” The next few months will not be easy, but if leaders in the profession can hold onto what has been achieved so far and focus on their own wellbeing, they will be better placed to give others the support they so sorely need.

Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD

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