“You’re on Mute.” We Need To Talk About Overwhelm.

It’s a strange thing, living through a pandemic. Almost a year down the track, our zoom-call work-life ticks on, we’ve adjusted to social isolation, and we speak a new language; “Can everyone see my screen?”, “Is this working, now?” and the catch cry of 2020, “You’re on mute.”

And in truth, we are a bit muted. We get through, we manage, we persevere, but in the workplace, we don’t talk much about the fundamentally destabalised world we are experiencing and how sometimes, it can make us feel overwhelmed. The great ‘keep calm and carry on’ stiff upper lip may have kept us in check through challenges of the past, but quiet stoicism isn’t necessarily good for us, our business or our teams, who may be feeling overwhelmed by it all.

And we are feeling overwhelmed. Lots of us.

In fact, a 2020 workplace study by Perkbox found that of British adults in employment, 79% are experiencing work-related stress. This is 20% higher than the 2018 findings.

Seventy nine percent. That’s virtually eight out of every ten of your staff, team-mates and colleagues.

In March/April 2020, a Qualtrics study of more than 2,000 global employees across Australia, Europe, Asia and the US showed the stark effects on mental health in the workplace:

• 44.0% of individual contributors reported decreased mental health.
• 40.5% of C-level employees reported decreased mental health.
• 40.1% of managers reported decreased mental health.

Concerningly, 38.2% of people in the same study said their company had not even asked them if they are okay. These people were more likely to say their mental health had declined.

It’s not uncommon for organisations to talk less during times of change or crisis. Managers often want to avoid the risk of disclosing something that might be misread, misinterpreted or misquoted and inadvertently invokes further unrest. There may be a fear of making stress levels worse by focusing on it too much or concerns about invading individuals’ privacy by bringing what are considered private matters into the workplace domain, but radio silence is not the answer.

Interestingly, 57.7% of workers said they were comfortable with their manager proactively asking them about their mental health, and 41.0% want their manager to ask them, mitigating those concerns of management around having these important conversations.

Yet when we do talk in the workplace, we tend to discuss stress generically, and as a fairly abstract concept. And while we are much better at talking about stress than we were in decades past, do any of us really feel comfortable to say the words, “I feel completely overwhelmed” in the workplace?

“A focus on mental health should be part of your business DNA”
– Derek Bishop, Partner & Co-Founder, Culture Consultancy

Leadership Starts With You.

Managers have the most critical role in addressing this issue. You are an employee’s direct connection to your company, and leading a productive, motivated, happy team starts with habits set by you.

With so much continued uncertainty, it’s easy for teams to lose focus and confidence, but there are practical and easy-to-implement activities you can do to help your team address their feelings of overwhelm.

1. Look After Number One

It sounds counter-intuitive to say the best way to look after your team is to look after yourself first, but it’s true. You’re the captain of your ship, so you need to carve out the time and space to do things helpful to your own mental wellbeing. Time taken to rest, exercise, relax and motivate yourself is essential to your own wellbeing, and puts you in the best possible space to then help your team.

Read this: Life is a Four-Letter Word: A Mental Health Survival Guide for Professionals by Andy Salkeld

2. Vulnerability is Strength

Leading with honesty and vulnerability builds trust and a safe environment for others to open up. Tell your team about what you’re experiencing. Don’t worry if this is out of character for you; that can prove even more powerful.

Read This: The Power of Vulnerability -Barry Kaplan

3. Champion Communication

What you do in this time is more important than what you say. For example, if you send an email to a colleague at the weekend, even to say, ‘no action needed until Monday’, they may still feel they should respond straight away. If it’s not urgent, don’t send it. It’s critical to put yourself in your team’s shoes and consider how your communication sounds or might be interpreted by them.

Try this: Teams need to clearly understand what is required of them and this can sometimes be hard working in a virtual world. Try a 10-minute daily ‘stand-up’ at a set time, to discuss key tasks for the day. This will encourage everyone to create some logical order to their personal and group workload, making it more manageable, and you have visibility of your team’s priorities and can identify anything that may fall through the gaps. It’s also a great and subtle way to check-in on staff welfare.

4. Actively Share Tools

If you do 15 minutes of yoga at the start of the day, tell everyone about it. Don’t have any techniques or tools? Ask your team for suggestions.

Try This: Create a shared document that collates tips and tricks to help manage stress. Make it a shared document and encourage team members to contribute their own tools and ideas. Pick a couple out at each whole team meeting and ask the author to share the tip and how it’s helped them.

5. Effective Delegation

Delegation is often the first thing to slip, especially with empathetic leaders who are mindful of their team’s workloads and wellbeing. It’s important to take a step back and reassess – are you taking on more than you should? Teams feel good when they are actively pursuing meaningful projects with clear objectives, so remember that delegating appropriate work is helping them too.

Read this: The Replaceable Founder by Ari Meisel

6. Go Back to Basics

Reset your expectations of your people, and in turn their expectations of themselves. Ask the question of your team; “What does good look like in this new world? What is less important at the moment?”

Try this: Task prioritisation quadrant:

 UrgentNot Urgent

Quadrant 1:

  • Crisis
  • Pressing problems
  • Deadline driven projects

Quadrant 2:

  • Relationship building
  • Finding new opportunities
  • Long-term planning
  • Preventive activities
  • Personal growth
  • Recreation
Not important

Quadrant 3:

  • Interruptions
  • Emails, calls, meetings
  • Popular activities
  • Proximate, pressing matters

Quadrant 4:

  • Trivia, busy work
  • Time wasters
  • Some calls and emails
  • Pleasant activities


And this: Vocalise your expectations for delivery on tasks by splitting them up into 2- hour, 2- day and 2- week deadlines.

7. Encourage Trial and Error

In an environment of business fragility and economic concerns, it’s easy for staff to have a heightened awareness of their job security. Fear leads to retreat, and staff will defer to activities that are low in risk and low on innovation. Creating an environment where people can experiment to find what works for them is critical to keeping morale and innovation alive.

Read This: Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society by Jim Manzi

8. Build Psychological Safety

Over 30 years of research by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson shows that organisations with a higher level of psychological safety (PS) perform better on almost any metric in comparison to organisations that have a low PS score. This is supported and reinforced by Google’s two-year Project Aristotle with over 15,000 employees.

Try this: The Fearless Organization Scan maps how employees perceive the level of PS in their team.

Read this: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth by Amy C. Edmondson

Importantly, remember there’s a reason the word ‘unprecedented’ has been overused this past year. Learning how to manage yourself and your team through these challenging times will ensure good habits are in place through the better days that lie ahead.

At Culture Consultancy, we are experts at helping businesses manages through times of change with a range of culture and leadership programmes.

Need help to create a workplace culture that works for everyone in your organisation? Find out more about how we can design and embed this with you. 

Jo Geraghty
Jo is a Director and Co-Founder of Culture Consultancy, specialising in cultural change and employee experience. She is a regular speaker, author and guest lecturer, and a champion of women in business. 
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