As I write this, Boris Johnson’s government has just imposed some new restrictions that limit our ability to socialise and, again, we find ourselves in a position where control and our social freedoms are taken away from us. It’s understandable: no-one wants a second wave of Coronavirus, and at the same time it throws us into new uncertainty and it is another change that is out of our control – which has a profound psychological effect on us.

I wanted to talk today about something that has become increasingly clear to me over the last five or so years: the fact that unless we start to look after ourselves better, unless we actively tackle the insidious triple danger of sleeplessness, stress and overwork in our own lives (and in those of our staff and teams, for you leaders reading this) then life (and work) is only ever going to get slowly but surely more difficult and challenging.

I think it’s safe to say that all of you reading this would say we’ve had a rough year. That’s putting it mildly and yet here we are, making it work despite everything! We are truly amazingly flexible and adaptable and we should all be patting ourselves on the back for what we’ve managed to do and the obstacles we’ve overcome within this crisis period. But we can’t do that forever, and from my own empirical research, I’m already seeing the warning signs that say we’re coming close to breaking point. Now I don’t want to be all doom and gloom here, I want to just emphasise how important it is that we take this existential threat seriously and do what we can to tackle and ultimately defeat what I call: THE UNHOLY TRINITY.

The UNHOLY TRINITY sounds like something from a dodgy 1970s Hammer Horror movie doesn’t it? But actually it’s a very modern phenomenon.

I think it really kicked in after the recession of 2008/9 when our stress levels significantly increased as a working nation. Job security went out of the window, and we were all fearful of losing our jobs and income. In return for keeping our jobs, we agreed to work that bit extra to help out, and when organisations did inevitably flatten structures, reduce headcount, and cut costs (which many have been doing ever since incidentally) we worked that bit harder to ensure that we got everything done and weren’t one of the ones ‘restructured out’.

Meta has been in business since the beginning of the millennium, and since 2000 research by the OECD and Eurostat database shows that we work now on average 1.5 hours longer than we did in 2000 (40.5 hours a week in 2000, 42 hours a week by 2019). I was once challenged by a senior director within an organisation as to whether we really did work longer and harder than we used to, that’s why I did the research, and what’s interesting is that the more you research, the more you realise that working harder and longer hours just doesn’t work.

I know it seems like an oxymoron. Surely if you work longer you’ll get more done right?? But all the research seems to say that if you work longer, especially whilst working through breaks (which many of us do now), then you get less not more done, and at a lower quality too! It also affects our ability to be creative – organisations that are famed for their innovation spend a lot of time and resources making sure their staff’s well-being is looked after to maintain their creativity.

What’s fascinating is when you look into the productivity per hour (check out the OECD’s fascinating research on this) the longer your average working day/week, the less productive per hour you become.

We are not alone in this upwards trend of working hours. However we are 2 hours above the EU average and amongst the worst in productivity. To spotlight one example: in Denmark workers work on average 37.7 hours a week and yet it is 23.5% higher in its productivity per hour. To put that into a context you’ll get, that’s two weeks extra holiday they’d have a year and they still get more done. This is a trend that is repeated not just through the EU but across the world.

So working longer hours doesn’t work! Not only does it not lead to increased productivity, but it also increases our stress levels (more on that in a moment).

This was all happening before the Covid crisis hit, but let’s update that research to the very latest during the last six months – you know how many of us are working from home now? You’d think that would lead to a better work-life balance, but actually we’re working even longer hours now we’re working from home more. Research done just last month by the National Bureau for Economic Research in the USA, using data from over three million American workers, found that the average workday in the USA had gone up by 8.2% (that’s a whopping 48 minutes per day). OK we’re not the USA, but we’re not far behind it, and what I find fascinating is that figure – 48 minutes.

I reckon that’s almost precisely the AVERAGE COMMUTE TIME for most people to and from the office. So now we are working from home, not only are we working 1.5 hours longer than we were 20 years ago, but in just six months we’ve upped that again by 48 minutes, using that commute time to work longer. No wonder we’re tired, no wonder we’re stressed!

No longer do we have that commute home to unwind and get our work day out of our system and get back to some semblance of normal. Now we open the door to our home office and we’re immediately launched into the stresses of home – kids, dinner and the stuff to be done around the house.

The body never gets a chance to calm itself down and get back to its normal state after the stresses of the day, and as a result that longer working day increases our stress and ensures that it carries on into our home life.

Which leads me on to introduce you to the second member of the UNHOLY TRINITY: STRESS.

Now I’ve talked a lot about stress so I won’t go into too much detail here, other than to say that, in our opinion at Meta, now more than ever we need to be actively doing what we can to tackle stress. As individuals we need to take the threat of stress more seriously, we need to be making sure that we understand it, that we’ve analysed what stresses us out and have tools in our toolkits to reduce its impact on us.

As leaders in organisations you need to be getting the conversations going about stress with your staff and ensuring you have a coherent strategy for tackling it within your organisations. This is not just because it’s the right thing to do, or a mental health tick box exercise, it’s because if you don’t face up to the tsunami wave of stress and mental health issues that will inevitably come as a result of the Covid crisis, then you’ll face serious capacity and performance issues within your businesses. Quality, creativity and ability to innovate will suffer too.

In short – it makes sound business sense to right now be investing (significantly) in the well-being (physical and mental) of your staff and tackling the silent killer called stress in your workplace and organisation. Think of it as a preventative medicine, to stop it before things get significantly worse.

Stress affects our ability to make good decisions and think things through, it makes complex tasks more difficult – we literally can’t think straight when we’re under stress. It tends to make us snappy, uptight and not very pleasant to be around. It makes us defensive, aggressive, emotional, and makes us react in ways out of character with our normal lovely selves. We make impulsive decisions, we say inappropriate things, we can feel helpless, out of control and struggle to get even simple tasks done. When we’re under stress we become more susceptible to illness as it suppresses our immune system, which is something nothing of us want when the danger of Covid is all around us!

Stress is something that was already a problem before Covid, but the latest research shows that we are all now facing even more elevated levels of anxiety and stress since the pandemic began. According to research done by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), when the Covid pandemic struck and we went into lockdown, there was a significant spike in our stress and anxiety levels to 5.2/10 on average (with 49.8% of people registering 6-10/10).  To put this into perspective, in the whole of 2019 (I think we’d all probably agree that was quite a stressful year too) we were on average at 2.8/10. Now because we’re amazingly adaptable human beings we’ve had a bit of a bounce back, but we’re still at 4.2/10 – a significant rise in stress in all of us.

So stress is very real and here right now and that’s causing many of us to have sleepless nights.

Which brings me along to the THIRD VILLAIN in the UNHOLY TRINITY – SLEEPLESSNESS.

There is a real sleeplessness epidemic going on in the UK, and this is not just because of the extra stresses of the pandemic, it’s been gradually getting worse for years. I started researching into sleep about 10 years ago, when I noticed just how many leaders I was working with were struggling to get a good night’s sleep. The fact is that getting a good night’s sleep is essential to have a healthy body and mind. Simply put, SLEEP is your greatest resource of all.

Sleep what is it good for

With a good night’s sleep, you can be your creative, fun loving, brilliant best, whereas with interrupted or reduced amounts of sleep, you can guarantee a more difficult and challenging day ahead.

The problem is that many of us are struggling to sleep right now. According to research done by Phillips in early 2020, the average sleep time in the UK is just six hours 32 minutes, which is considerably worse than the six hours 48 minutes average across the world.

So what?? I hear you say. What’s 16 minutes a night? Well, actually over the course of a year that’s an extra four whole days’ worth of sleep – and seven-to-eight hours are the minimum we all need to get per night to ensure that all that our body needs to do to repair, recover, regenerate, recharge and download actually gets done.

If we don’t sleep for long enough or have fitful sleep, then essentially we interrupt the programme of works that our body and mind has for us that enables us to function at our best. We can’t fully download or process the content from our brain, which means we can’t retain or absorb information in the same way the next day, we just don’t have the internal capacity or processing power to do what needs to be done. We don’t repair all the cells that need to be repaired, we don’t grow enough new cells to replace the old ones and as a result our physical health suffers. On top of that, our immune system will be compromised and we increase our risk of high blood pressure. Without sleep we tend to be more grumpy and irritable and our ability to see the world in a positive light becomes harder and harder. To put it bluntly, after a few nights of bad sleep, we’re barely able to function at all!

It also means we are more likely to start up our own internal stress factories, and we are more susceptible to STRESS. And STRESS is the number one cause of SLEEPLESSNESS, and WORK (especially now we’re working harder and longer) is the number one cause of that STRESS.

So now I hope you can see that these three members of the UNHOLY TRINITY not only cause each other but feed into each other and aggravate one another. It leads to an inevitable downward spiral, each feeding the next. They are truly an UNHOLY TRINITY and it’s time we all took notice of them and frankly did something to take them on and knock them down to size.

You see the thing is that when they are all together in their unholy union, then it’s difficult to disentangle them and tackle them. However, tackle each individually and they are relatively easy to do something about.

That’s what we’ve been doing here at Meta, working with frontline organisations to help tackle that UNHOLY TRINITY. We’ve combined the workshops that we provide on the BIO-CHEMISTRY OF STRESS, WORKING SMARTER NOT HARDER and #HAPPYSLEEPING, to create our RESILIENCE TOOLKIT programme. It’s a three-day programme that not only gives those who attend the understanding and the tools that will enable them to fight back and recover their health and well-being, but ensures that this is fed into the teams they work in too, in a way that builds resilience within the organisation.

At the end of the day Meta is a business consultancy. We understand the demands and pressures of work, and we understand the dynamics of organisations. This means that the RESILIENCE TOOLKIT programme is practical and easy to apply back in the workplace, and as a part of the programme we’ll work with your leaders to ensure that your organisation acts on the feedback and becomes a more resilient place as a result.

I personally have been researching the BIO-CHEMISTRY OF STRESS, SLEEP and SMARTER WORKING PRACTICES for years and years now, and what I’ve come to realise is that, although IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE, these are things that most of us don’t know enough about and, as a result, we are unsure how best to tackle them. I’ve done the research so you don’t have to, and now I want to share that research to enable you to get the best from your people in these challenging and unprecedented times.

So if you’d like to find out more about how Meta can help you, your team, your leaders, or indeed your whole organisation to combat STRESS, WORK SMARTER, SLEEP better and increase RESILIENCE, then please DO get in touch. We want to do what we can to ensure that we all get through these unprecedented and challenging times.

Have a great month all of you, and please don’t hesitate to contact us should any of the UNHOLY TRINITY be affecting you.

Jo xxx

About Jo Clarkson

Jo Clarkson is the CEO of Meta and a frequent writer of the Meta-Org.com blog.
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