Mental ping pong is the hidden crisis of remote working. If we don’t address it now, urgently, the burnout epidemic which slowed across 2020 is going to knock global productivity sideways.
Here’s a snapshot of my Thursday afternoon: 2 hour global conference presenting our digital transformation consultancy to several hundred excos across our top markets. 1 hour International Women’s Day panel pre-record. 2 x 30 min 2021 KPI setting sessions with direct reports. An hour with our holding co discussing shared service needs. 30 min consultation with my daughter’s college tutor and ex-husband. 30 min check in with French CEO. 1 hour session with tech founders looking for collaboration potential. 30 min client proposal run through. 30 min weekly status with US team. 8pm and breathe…
Now that’s a hefty schedule for one week, by anyone’s standards, let alone one afternoon. Yet, this is merely one fragment of my diary depicting a meeting flow which rolls endlessly onwards repeating morning, afternoon and evening similarly. On and on go the meetings, the delivery, the pace. On I sit in this chair, looking into this screen. This is how it’s been since the world stopped turning as we knew it in March 2020.
Now, I’m a senior business leader, entrepreneur and mother and I take full responsibility for having set this schedule myself. I also know I’m not alone viewing and organising a work calendar like this. Every colleague, friend and professional relative I chat to cites an identical crisis. Productivity HAS increased during the pandemic. Fact. Remote workers are logging on to company VPNs for an average of 11 hours per day in the UK, US & Canada, up 2 hours per day compared with pre-Covid work patterns. We’re ‘always on’ and understandably less able to punctuate the end of the working day when we’re still in the working space (this is exaggerated even further if working from the bedroom, where degenerative mental and physical consequences of remote working escalate alarmingly). However, it’s not just our inability to call time on laptop time, there’s a general ripple of accelerated pace expected of companies.
Universally, we excitedly brandished the ‘decade of innovation in 10 weeks’ stat at the start of the pandemic when digital transformation agendas catapulted businesses into winner or loser status in unprecedented, revelatory strides. We leapt headlong into proving our ability to innovate and produce at speed both in terms of company and personal output as we protected our client relationships and job security. We all bustled around proving ourselves as economies contracted and flexed in every sector, category and market.
The upshot is that we’re now 12 months in, optimism twinkling on the horizon at a return to normality, and yet I believe we’ve got an awful lot of work to do before we healthily reintegrate into whatever the new normal is. The contributions remote workers have become accustomed to delivering are absolutely unsustainable. There’s a new health hazard at play which I call The Cognitive Bounce.
The Cognitive Bounce
Take my agenda above – it all took place from the same chair, in the same room, through the same screen, in one long stream, with mere seconds as transitions. Now, if I was delivering a global conference in a normal world I would probably have flown somewhere and experienced 3 days of travel, rehearsals, the big keynote stage moment, networking and so on. I would have focused singularly on this valuable and important work. I would have decompressed afterwards, probably with a co-presenter dinner and drinks and followed up on the Q&As on the flight home. Instead, that epic delivery last week was simply 2 hours in the middle of a back to back flurry of other meetings and other work. I was immediately off the virtual stage, after 2 solid hours of presenting, into a recording for IWD with my publisher. Boom. Immediately, on stage again meeting new faces, discussing powerful female agendas, whilst being filmed during another high intensity hour. Time to get a drink/pause/see my kids after this? Nope. Close the Zoom link and accept the Teams link to join the KPI session and shift into nurturing line manager mode. On and on with only fleeting mouse clicks as punctuations, click click, deep breath, new agenda, new faces and go…
In the usual office setting, we would have a break between meetings. We would walk to another room. We would excuse ourselves to make a tea. Or some kind soul would even do a coffee run. We’d get a cab to another meeting location. We’d have some banter in the corridors with a friend en route to the lift. We’d have gaps. We’d shift energy and location. We’d subconsciously mentally reboot between meetings.
The virtual meeting world means not only have we stopped enshrouding personal and professional time with distinguished boundaries, but we’ve stopped breathing between agendas. We have glided into unrelenting end video call/join video call/end video call/join video call in a dangerous frenzy of assumption that this is okay. It is NOT okay.
Our brains are not designed to flit so extraordinarily between one task and another. Focus, as Daniel Goleman describes in his excellent book of the same name, is ‘the hidden driver of excellence’. But where and how does the focus come when we are playing mental ping pong all day? In my case, generally late evenings and weekends, once domesticity and children have been tended to, is when I get to do the work work – responding to emails, writing the decks, strategising the business direction. (And yes, often in bed, just for a change of scenery from my downstairs desk next to the playroom.) This also is NOT okay.
The brain burden of darting
When a brain is exhausted by one task it can be rejuvenating and energising to flit to something entirely different. Nick Hall, neuroscientist and author of ‘I know what to do so why don’t I do it’, teaches us that when growing weary of a left brain task eg number crunching, it’s a useful leadership hack to quickly change work entirely and flip to a creative, right brain task eg writing the comms for your launch announcement. Sparking the other side of the brain gives us a surge of energy which is healthy and creates renewed motivation, concentration and re-invigorates general cognitive function.
However, when we dart too rapidly from unconnected task to unconnected, challenging task, at my example Thursday pace, we dangerously plunge into risk of total cognitive shut down. Our brains simply cannot cope with the frenzied oscillation of this then that, this then that, this then that, over and over and over without a break. Eventually we crack. We hit mental burn out (which quickly descends into the physical). Thinking becomes fuzzy, we become irritable and decision making starts to become ineffectual. We start to feel overwhelmed by minutia, as stress hormones surge, exaggerating importance of the non-essential, triggering ever-spiralling cortisol-fuelled unwarranted panicky responses.
Biologically, it’s imperative to rest our brains to be able to contribute intelligently and impactfully. Abundant research on naps, meditation, nature walks and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes has evidenced how mental breaks replenish attention and by default increase productivity. Stepping away from the maelstrom of meetings and reclaiming perspective, of both self and business agendas, is the ONLY way to maintain effectiveness. We simply have to create the space to digest, decompress, recalibrate, prepare and breathe.