This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
Did I catch you on a busy day? Are you cramming this in, in between meetings, or during lunch, or maybe while you scroll through LinkedIn to take a break from your busy work day? If that’s the case, this is just for you!
Before I jump in, I’d like to invite you to join me with settling in:
- Take your right index finger, and touch your left palm.
- Now slowly slide your index finger along your palm to the tip of your left index finger, and as you do so, take a breath in. Hold this for four seconds.
- Then as you breathe out, slide your index finger slowly back to the base of your palm at your wrist and then hold for four seconds.
- Repeat this for each of your remaining fingers.
- Slide, breathe in, hold for four, slide back, breathe out, hold for four.
What I’ve just walked you through is an example of a technique called box breathing. Neuroscientists at Stanford University (Balban et al., 2023) have researched how this and other forms of structured breathing can help regulate your nervous system by activating higher-order brain structures that promote a sense of calm. Simple exercises like these can help promote effective emotional regulation which, along with other psychological capacities, enable us to engage in other practices that further support our wellbeing and optimal functioning (Kellerman & Seligman, 2023). What if I told you simple practices like these, taught in a group setting, and with the support of a trained coach, could be the key to flourishing in teams, companies, and organizations of all sizes? Well, it’s just a hunch, but it’s one that is gaining traction in the science of wellbeing.
A couple months ago I began diving into research about workplace engagement and stress, and specifically around the idea of job demands and resources (JD-R; Demerouti et al., 2001) which suggests that negative outcomes such as strain and eventual burnout can occur when we have insufficient resources to meet the demands we face. Around the same time, I came across articles in mainstream publications talking about workplace burnout and I couldn’t help but notice: many of the suggestions on ways to address workplace strains such as burnout talk about what organizations can do to increase engagement. The solutions are often framed as an open question of: “How can organizations and their managers increase engagement by increasing the resources staff have to meet the demands they face?”
Leaders are often leaned upon to help address issues of engagement and burnout by virtue of the key role they play in organizations. In addition to holding positional authority and therefore a certain range of power and responsibility, leaders—people managers in particular—can play a crucial role in influencing employee mental health (Gayed et al., 2018; Petrie, 2018) and other positive organizational-level factors such as creating meaningful work experiences (Lysova et al., 2019). With the key role that managers play in supporting organizational wellbeing, I couldn’t help but wonder:
- What happens in an organization when the demands are too high on the managers? What is the impact on the wellbeing of these leaders?
- And what is the resulting impact on the organization?
In my own experience as a people manager and as a coach working with leaders across a wide spectrum of industries and at varying levels of seniority and experience, I have seen a trend: No matter what the size or type of organization, when an organizational system is unable to reduce stressors or is unable to increase resources at a structural systemic level, there is a unique pattern that tends to unfold: Leaders who are often the highest performing, strongest and most aligned to the organization take it upon themselves to exercise some level of autonomy to address the imbalance themselves.
These are the people who have a high level of self-efficacy (i.e. they believe they can succeed) in making a difference, and they are motivated to see results. Often they were high-performing individual contributors who, by virtue of their success, were promoted into people management positions (Park & Faerman, 2019). These are often some of the most loyal, driven, and supportive leaders you will see—they have highly-valued talent and experience, high social intelligence, and a work ethic that has driven them to success.
Our organizational systems often place tacit or sometimes explicit pressure on these individuals to help correct a system which can ironically introduce even more strain into the system, in this case on the very people striving to make a positive change.
Far too often, when these leaders take initiative to make change without adequate resources backing them up, it can result in added stress and increased strain on these very people which then has its own negative outcomes—oftentimes they are burning out, becoming disenchanted, or questioning their own effectiveness as a leader. Akin to what’s known as the “recovery paradox”—a finding that the ability for individuals to recover from stress is impaired when stressors are high (Sonnentag, 2018)—strong leaders are an organizational resource, and when this strength is compromised, so too is the ability for the organization to recover.
All of this left me with a question: How can leaders break the cycles of persistent stressors within the systems in which they lead?
- Is there a way to work with “systemic windows”? Every organization has formal and informal structures and processes. I wonder whether there are ways for leaders to identify the “openings” in the formal structure of an organization that allows these individuals to initiate changes systematically in an incremental way? That is, don’t try to change the structure or the policies, but find ways to work within it.
- What about relationships? When the individual contributor rises up into a new role as a people manager, they are leaving an old role behind and, with it, existing relationships that will change in slight yet fundamental ways. How can they build new relationships that increase and strengthen their ability to lead?
- Is one of the keys to higher performance more rest? In engagement theory there is a concept of “detachment”—that is, to reach optimal functioning we need to not only have periods of stress but also periods of rest and recovery. What are the ways that leaders can disengage from their work to return revitalized and energized to keep going? How do you give permission to loyal, high-producing people to take a break?
These are the questions that guided me in carrying out literature research for a case study in my masters of applied positive psychology course on organizational flourishing where I looked at the need and possible pathway to providing tailored learning experiences that support resilience in people managers and individual contributors who are on their way up the ranks, and to do so in a group format with a trained and certified coach.
My ideas are still nascent, but there is a wealth of research-informed positive psychology interventions (PPIs) to choose from, and all can be easily learned and practiced. There are also simple ways to carry out empirically validated self-assessments to help point you in the right direction. And there’s something to be said for working with a group that shares a similar interest in growing as professionals—like having your own personal board of advisors—with the aid of a trained coach who joins the circle as a thinking partner.
Does this pique your interest in any way? Let me know with your comments or DMs. I would love to hear what resonates, what doesn’t, and what this sparks for you.
Balban, M.Y. , Neri, E., Kogon, M.M., Wee, L., Nouriani, B., Jo, B., Holl, G., Zeitzer, J.M., Spiegel, D., Humberman, A.D. (2023). Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell Reports Medicine, 4, 1-10.
Demerouti, E., Bakker, A. B., Nachreiner, F., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2001). The job demands-resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 499–512. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.86.3.499
Fritz, C., Ellis, A. M., demsky, C. A., Lin, B. C., & Guros, F. (2013). Embracing work breaks: Recovering from work stress. Organizational Dynamics, 42, 274-280.
Gayed, A., Bryan, B. T., Petrie, K., Deady, M., Milner, A., LaMontagne, A. D., Calvo, R. A., Mackinnon, A., Christensen, H., Mykletun, A., Glozier, N., & Harvey, S. B. (2018). A protocol for the HeadCoach trial: The development and evaluation of an online mental health training program for workplace managers. BMC Psychiatry, 18. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-018-1603-4
Jeannotte A., Hutchinson D., & Kellerman G. (2021). Time to Change for Mental Health and Well-being via Virtual Professional Coaching: Longitudinal Observational Study. J Med Internet Res, 23(7) https://doi.org/10.2196/27774
Kellerman, G.R. & Seligman, M. (2023). TomorrowMind: Thriving at Work – Now and in an Uncertain Future. New York, NY. Atria Books.
Park, H. H., & Faerman, S. (2019). Becoming a manager: Learning the importance of emotional and social competence in managerial transitions. The American Review of Public Administration, 49(1), 98–115. https://doi.org/10.1177/0275074018785448
Sonnentag, S. (2018). The recovery paradox: Portraying the complex interplay between job stressors, lack of recovery, and poor well-being. Research in Organizational Behavior, 38, 169-185.