Many industry sectors claim to thrive on fast-moving, high-pressure environments; ensuring that employees throughout the business bring their “A-Game” at all times.
Look at any job description for a high-pressure role, and you see some fairly common buzzwords and phrases. They seek “An individual who thrives in a fast-paced, target driven environment, without compromising on quality of delivery.”, with “a strong attention to detail and accuracy” and the “ability to work autonomously”. All admirable qualities, of course. And given the right culture, such qualities will pave the way for a fantastic career.
However, in these high-powered, high-pressure roles, we seem to forget one fundamental thing – we are all human, and humans make mistakes. The pressure to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time can take its toll on employee wellbeing in one way or another.
Whilst the conversations around mental health, stress and burnout have become a little easier of late – especially given the collective trauma of Covid – the stigma is still present, loud and clear. A very recent example was the undeserved criticism that US Gymnast Simone Biles received for pulling out of some of her Olympic events, saying “I have to focus on my mental health. I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now… We’re not just athletes. We’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.” A Forbes article had this to say about the undue criticism: “While so many have applauded her courage, others have gone on attack. Two radio show hosts recently questioned why support for Biles’ decision to withdraw is to be considered brave. Mental health may promote skepticism because it’s invisible. We can’t see the struggle like we can see a broken bone or the pain of a pulled muscle. Because it’s invisible, we feel entitled to judge it, to say nothing of the fact that we expect Olympic caliber athletes to simply suck it up and drive on.”
It’s true – scepticism surrounds invisible illness such as stress, anxiety and depression. A person is never questioned or belittled for needing time to recover from a broken leg; the same should apply to factors affecting mental wellbeing. And if you’re a star employee who delivers above and beyond consistently in a pressurised role, organisational culture – and its stance on performance and employee wellbeing – can make or break your consistency at that level.
Leaders have to really dig deep into how their culture is affecting employee wellbeing. If there is a culture of extreme perfectionism in an organisation, it likely won’t be the positive you think it is. Scratch the surface, and you may find exhausted, burnt-out staff who are running on empty just to keep up with the perfectionist façade.
So, what can leaders do about it?
Firstly, recognise that no-one is perfect, including yourself! A recent LSE article stated that “the percentage of employees who say they are often creative, dedicated, and willing to go “above and beyond” significantly increases when they see their manager as displaying openness more frequently and when their manager frequently displays vulnerability.” Yet only 39% of management of those surveyed displayed openness whilst less that a quarter displayed any vulnerability. An employee knowing that management and leadership recognise that they and others will have off-days will put them increasingly at ease.
Next, recognising good stress versus bad stress is key. A certain degree of responsibility and pressure – i.e. good stress – can be a fantastic motivator, when applied correctly in the right environment. This means setting clear objectives, setting boundaries, being able to separate work and home life, and having a sense of accomplishment in your role. As this article states, the scales can easily tip into the negative: “The problem is when the pendulum swings too far the other way and people burn out, which can often involve not being able to concentrate, being irritable and feeling tightness in our body.” It goes on to say that the energy that motivates staff and allows them to feel accomplishments and pride in their work can easily become destructive. “When this inner voice is really loud, it can interfere with action and moving forward, and we can get caught in doubt, in indecision, in irritability and stress.” Extreme perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome can take over and become a counterproductive thought process. So, there needs to be a culture of support to prevent that from ever happening.
Finally, recognise that mistakes happen. Aside from legal or other regulatory mistakes, obviously, most other oversights or mishaps are minor in the grand scheme of things. Leaders would do well to remember that a key driver of growth is to learn from mistakes made! How do you deal with mistakes made? Take the example of restaurant Hawksmoor on board – in 2019 a server made the honest mistake of giving a customer a £4,500 bottle of wine to a customer instead of the £260 bottle that was actually ordered. Hawksmoor’s response? “To the customer who accidentally got given a bottle of Chateau le Pin Pomerol 2001, which is £4500 on our menu, last night – hope you enjoyed your evening! To the member of staff who accidentally gave it away, chin up! One-off mistakes happen and we love you anyway 😉” A really empathetic comeback, and we dare say that server won’t make the same mistake again!