Make time to rest or the world will steal it from you
Was your summer holiday refreshing? Or are you secretly still out of puff? Many executives who powered through the pandemic with no Easter break are approaching an uncertain autumn insufficiently revived. In a year of tough decisions about lay-offs and strategy, an awful truth is dawning: the ability to rest is a competitive advantage in the workplace. And many of us are very bad at it.
We all need to learn the art of holiday. We train to improve our work, but we don’t practice our rest. We assume that recovery will just seep into the gaps left between scheduled meetings, but then find we don’t know how to handle spare time. I was horrified to discover on my two-week summer break that I’ve forgotten how to relax. Reading novels, a usually fail-safe method, failed to stop my mind raking over the uncertainties ahead. My pledge to digitally detox collapsed after a day. My only true moments of respite were in the Cornish sea, listening to the crashing of waves and focusing on staying afloat. The strictures of mindfulness gurus, “be present”, never seemed more apt.
The pandemic has made it vital to be on our mettle, and also harder to rest. Making the right decisions this autumn will require calm, objectivity, courage and flexibility — all of which tend to diminish with burnout. Some studies suggest that stress can exacerbate the human tendency in unfamiliar situations to narrow the number of options we consider. Under prolonged stress, we may also jump to conclusions, because it is comforting to impose certainty on changing events.
Even before Covid-19 hit Europe, one British chief executive told me that he’d noticed some staff becoming less co-operative and having narrower horizons. Looming uncertainty about Brexit, a US-China trade war and bad news about climate change, he said, had left many hunkering down into their core roles. Since then, the economic challenges presented by Covid-19 have combined with worries about home schooling and elderly parents to leave many workers with little emotional bandwidth. Leaders must watch out for the hidden effects of cumulative tiredness on themselves and their teams.