Recently, I’ve been feeling tired, really tired. The kind of tiredness that isn’t fixed by a good night’s sleep. On a drive home the other day, my mind was buzzing with thoughts of work until it landed on something different – my new hobby, scuba diving.
Not long ago, my eldest son and I completed our PADI Open Water scuba certification. In our training, we learned about ‘safety stops’ - a planned 3-minute pause during the ascent from a dive. These stops allow the body to release the excess nitrogen absorbed under the water pressure. Skip this, and you risk a potentially serious condition known as decompression sickness.
As I thought about it, it struck me that there’s a clear similarity to our work lives. When we’re under constant work pressure, we also need to ‘come up for air’ and release the mental pressure. If we don’t, burnout is a very real risk.
This idea got me thinking, and it made me want to explore it further. So here I am, sharing my thoughts on the pressures we all face at work, how we deal with them, and crucially, how we as leaders can ensure our teams are getting the time they need to decompress and stay healthy.
This is my exploration of that concept.
Are You Ignoring the Invisible Damage of Constant Pressure?
We live in a society that values busyness. Employees often wear their workload as a badge of honor. Yet, just as nitrogen saturation isn’t immediately obvious in a dive, the wear and tear from work pressure often fly under the radar until it’s too late.
In the same way that scuba divers must respect the laws of physics and biology to safely enjoy their underwater adventures, we must acknowledge the basic human need for balance and recovery in the workplace. Despite the emphasis on hard work and perseverance, our brains and bodies are not designed for continuous, high-intensity output.
We must ask: are we allowing time for our teams to release this pressure? Or are we promoting a culture of constant ‘busyness’ where taking a break is considered a luxury or a sign of weakness? It’s time we start recognizing the importance of mental and physical breaks, both for the individual’s well-being and the overall health of our teams.
Can You Spot the Warning Signs of Pressure Overload?
As leaders, we must be adept at recognizing the early signs of excessive pressure. These might manifest as decreased productivity, reduced employee engagement, increased absences, or general discontent. It requires compassionate, empathetic leadership to spot these signals and respond proactively.
However, recognizing pressure isn’t just about identifying the symptoms. It also involves understanding its sources and contributors. In the diving world, depth, duration, and the individual diver’s physical condition all play a role in nitrogen absorption. Similarly, workplace pressures can be attributed to a variety of factors, including workload, interpersonal dynamics, organizational culture, and individual stress tolerance.
By understanding these factors, we can develop strategies to mitigate their impact and foster a healthier, more sustainable work environment. This starts with open conversations about stress, workloads, and individual capacities, fostering a culture where it’s okay to say “I need a break.”
Do You See the Power of Pausing?
If safety stops are crucial in scuba diving, they’re equally important in our work lives. Think of them as regular intervals to slow down, reflect, and reset. Encouraging mental breaks, promoting a healthy work-life balance, and even implementing flexible work schedules can serve as these much-needed pauses.
Yet, for many, taking breaks in a busy workday can feel counterintuitive. Just as some divers may be tempted to skip safety stops in favor of reaching the surface faster, employees often forego breaks in the pursuit of productivity. However, the benefits of regular breaks are well-documented, including improved focus, creativity, and overall productivity.
So, how can we incorporate safety stops into our work routines? Strategies can range from brief mindfulness exercises and walking breaks to longer rest periods or even days off. The key is to foster a culture where breaks are viewed not as distractions from work, but as crucial components of it.
What Happens When You Keep Ignoring the Need to Decompress?
The results of disregarding decompression can be disastrous both in diving and at work. In the professional world, this might translate to burnout—a state of chronic physical and emotional fatigue. Neglecting mental well-being in favor of relentless productivity might offer short-term gains but can lead to serious long-term consequences.
Burnout can lead to reduced job performance, disengagement, physical health problems, and increased turnover rates. Moreover, it can impact an individual’s personal life, leading to strained relationships, decreased life satisfaction, and a range of mental health issues.
It’s crucial to remember that the health of our organizations is closely tied to the health of our people. By failing to prioritize decompression, we risk damaging both our team members and the organizations that rely on them.
How Can You Integrate Decompression Into Your Work Routine?
Leaders have a responsibility to foster an environment that supports decompression. This might involve encouraging team members to take short mindfulness breaks, promoting mental health days, or creating spaces for open dialogue about work stressors.
Effective decompression mechanisms can lead to healthier, more productive, and more engaged teams. Furthermore, they can foster a more resilient workforce better equipped to handle challenges and adapt to change.
Does Your Organizational Culture Support or Sabotage Decompression?
Consider this scenario: In Company A, there’s an employee we’ll call “Alex.” Alex is celebrated for their high output, regularly outperforming their peers in sheer quantity of work completed. The catch? Alex works 60-80 hours a week to sustain this level of productivity. The leadership team holds Alex up as the gold standard, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) encouraging the rest of the team to match Alex’s output.
While it may seem like this approach drives productivity, in reality, it sabotages it. This benchmark sets an unrealistic and unhealthy standard for the rest of the team. Instead of inspiring increased output, it fosters a culture of overwork, stress, and ultimately, burnout. Morale dips as employees struggle to match Alex’s output without sacrificing their well-being. Staff turnover increases, productivity actually decreases over time, and the company’s reputation as a desirable place to work suffers.
Contrast this with a different approach. Suppose leadership recognizes Alex’s hard work but also emphasizes the importance of balance. Instead of setting Alex’s output as the standard, they encourage Alex to adopt more sustainable work habits and share these practices with the team. They implement policies that support work-life balance, like flexible hours and respecting personal time. This alternative approach fosters a culture where high productivity is encouraged but not at the expense of employee well-being.
If your organization resembles Company A, it’s time for a cultural shift. Leaders can start by acknowledging the issue openly and leading by example. Promote balance, encourage regular breaks, and emphasize that productivity should not come at the cost of health. Implement policies that support well-being and discourage overwork. And remember, while you can celebrate high performers, it’s essential to underscore that sustainable success is built on balance, not burnout.
This shift won’t happen overnight. It requires consistent effort, reinforcement, and leadership commitment. But the benefits of such a change - increased employee satisfaction, reduced turnover, better long-term productivity, and a more positive company reputation - are well worth the effort.
Are You Ready to Dive Deeper into the Realities of Leadership?
Leadership plays a significant role in shaping organizational culture. As leaders, it’s not enough to merely acknowledge the importance of decompression. We must lead by example and implement practices that normalize and encourage taking breaks. Here are a few ways leaders can promote a culture that prioritizes decompression time:
Embrace Vacations: Leaders should not only take their vacation time but also encourage their teams to do the same. Some companies have even implemented mandatory vacation policies to ensure their employees get the rest they need. Show that it’s not just acceptable but expected for team members to fully disconnect during their time off. This includes not contacting them for work-related issues unless absolutely necessary. Vacations provide an extended period for mental and physical recovery, which is essential for sustained productivity and creativity.
Respect Personal Time: Avoid sending emails or messages outside of regular work hours. If you must compose an email after hours, use the “schedule send” function so it arrives during work hours. This practice respects your team members' personal time and reduces the pressure they might feel to be ‘always on.’
Encourage Regular Breaks: Throughout the workday, promote the idea of taking short breaks to rest and recharge. This could be as simple as a walk outside, a mindfulness exercise, or a coffee break. Not only do these breaks provide immediate stress relief, but they can also enhance overall focus and productivity.
Promote a Balanced Culture: Consider introducing ‘decompression activities’ into your work routine. This could include team yoga sessions, guided meditations, or even just a regular team lunch where work talk is off-limits. These activities not only provide a break but also foster a sense of community and team cohesion.
Open Communication: Foster a culture where it’s okay for team members to voice when they’re feeling overwhelmed. This means not only creating safe spaces for these discussions but also responding proactively when issues are raised.
By incorporating these practices into your leadership approach, you’ll be better positioned to create a work culture that values balance and decompression. Remember, a rested team is a productive team. Prioritizing decompression time is not just beneficial for individual team members - it’s crucial for the long-term health and success of your organization.
Can You Survive on Just Weekend and Evening Decompression?
Decompression isn’t a luxury that can be postponed until evenings or weekends. If your team members are consistently spending their personal time recovering from work stress, it’s a sign that your work culture may need adjustment. While evening and weekend rest is important, decompression needs to be incorporated throughout the workday as well. Here are a few strategies to consider:
Implement Scheduled Breaks: Encourage your team to take regular breaks during the day. It could be a 5-minute break every hour, or a longer break every few hours. Regular intervals of rest can help refresh the mind, reduce stress, and maintain high levels of productivity throughout the day.
Encourage Physical Activity: Encourage team members to engage in physical activity during their breaks. This could be a short walk outside, stretching, or even a quick workout. Physical activity not only provides a mental break but can also improve mood, energy levels, and overall health.
Mindfulness and Meditation Sessions: Introduce short, guided mindfulness or meditation sessions that employees can attend during the workday. These can be as brief as 10 minutes but can greatly help in reducing stress and fostering mental clarity.
Flexible Schedules: If possible, consider implementing flexible schedules that allow team members to work during their most productive hours. Some people might prefer to start work early and end earlier, while others might be more productive later in the day. This not only caters to individual work preferences but also helps prevent burnout by allowing employees to work when they are at their best.
Introduce a “No Meeting” Block: Consider setting aside a block of time each day or week when no meetings are scheduled. This allows employees to have uninterrupted time to focus on their tasks, decreasing stress and increasing productivity. It can also provide a much-needed break from screen time in our increasingly virtual work environments.
Remember, effective decompression is not just about the quantity of breaks but also their quality. The aim is to provide genuinely restful periods that allow team members to mentally and physically recharge, preparing them for sustained productivity. It’s about creating a culture where taking time to rest is not just accepted—it’s encouraged.
Conclusion: Are You Ready to Change Your Perspective on Leadership and Decompression?
As leaders, we need to shift our perspective and see the immense value in allowing our teams to decompress regularly. It’s about recognizing that our people, like scuba divers, can’t be under high pressure all the time. We must strive to create work cultures that prioritize and respect the need for ‘safety stops’ in our day-to-day operations.
In the end, leadership isn’t about pushing people to their limits; it’s about understanding those limits and ensuring everyone gets the time to decompress, refresh, and ultimately thrive.
My eldest son and I after completing the Open Water course from PADI on Fathers Day weekend in Tobermory