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Cycling through the Ups and Downs of Work

We all have different cycles of pressure at work. For example, if you worked for a weekly magazine as a writer, there’d...

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We all have different cycles of pressure at work. For example, if you worked for a weekly magazine as a writer, there’d be a peak of pressure on your weekly deadline day.

Cycle of Pressure: Writer for a Weekly Magazine | Deadline Day: Friday

In the corporate world, professionals commonly face quarterly peaks of pressure as they strive to hit quarterly targets and deliverables.

Cycle of Pressure: Consultant | Targets based on Quarterly Deliverables

I got to thinking about this whilst watching the Rugby world cup – and thinking about how different the cycles of pressure are for an athlete.

Cycle of Pressure 2019: Rory Best, Ireland Rugby Captain

Just as the pressure increases at certain points in the cycle, so does the expectation that the individual will put in more effort, and maybe even more hours, to get their work done. The logical action-reaction to this, is that in low pressure points of the cycle, less effort and fewer hours need to be put in to achieve the same results. For athletes, training schedules become ever so slightly less rigorous, diet and lifestyle restrictions are loosened and the media backs off.

But the reality at work is, it would be frankly absurd to say something like “I’m working a 5-hour day today, because I’ve just come out of a peak of pressure and I’m in a down-time period.”

Why is that so crazy?

If we could identify a cycle and be open about it, we could say: at the end of this cycle, this particular outcome needs to be achieved. If the focus remains solely on achieving the outcome, the fluctuating working hours or level of effort at different points in that cycle become less relevant.

This outcome-based approach to work (as opposed to the hours-based approach that organisations are stuck in) would have a significant impact on the well-being and mental dexterity of the employee, in my opinion.

So long as the expectation on employees is that they give 100% effort, 100% of the time, organisations will face huge unproductivity challenges. The 8-hour a day system is inherently flawed, and the result? Well, workers don’t work 8 hours a day. Research reveals that in any given working day, actual time spent working is more like three hours and that workers fill up their remaining hours with unrelated activities: reading news websites (on average, 65 minutes a day), checking social media (44 minutes a day) and talking to colleagues about non-work- related topics (40 minutes a day).

It would seem that “looking busy” is a top skill for 2019.

I wonder if employees were empowered to acknowledge that there are cycles of pressure at work, whether instead of just “looking busy” they’d say “I’m working on this project for half a day today and spending the other half at this conference to learn about this new technology that I’m really interested in. I can do this because I’m on track to deliver my output for this cycle.” Doesn’t seem so crazy now, does it?

I’ve just wrapped up some research on employee mindsets towards lifelong learning to work out why there isn’t a greater appreciation of the need to upskill (a shocking 65% of respondents expressed confidence that their current skillset will sustain them throughout their career, despite the commonly held belief that we will all have to reskill every 3-5 years in the digital age). The number one barrier to adopting lifelong learning, as stated by respondents, was a lack of working hours dedicated to learning. Funny considering they’re “wasting” nearly an hour a day checking social media. (Click here to be the first to receive the report when it’s published.)

Is part of the problem the rigid structures of work, which mandate that we clock-in for 8 hours a day in order to get our pay-check? I think so.

A new way of looking at work, appreciating the up-time and down-time of pressure and workload, would serve to create a far more human, far more health-conscious organisation.

  • What if, during a peak of pressure, you increased the number of short, sharp check-ins with a manager or HR professional to make sure the individual has everything they need and isn’t becoming overwhelmed?
  • What if, just before a peak of pressure, employees were more proactive in identifying things that could be cleared from their desk in advance to avoid the risk of burnout?

What’s more, if employees were empowered to be open with one another about their (or their team’s) cycles of pressure, that could foster a greater sense of empathy - and ultimately a better culture - at work.

So, I leave you with the following considerations:

  • Measure work not in hours, but in output – are you meeting your goals? Is your team meeting their goals? Track against that and let go of the instinct to check if everyone’s green on Skype at 9am.
  • Map out your work in cycles. Clear your schedule for “peaks”. Then, plan in something that you’ve been really wanting to do – a project or a piece of learning – in some down-time. You do have the time. You’ve just been too busy looking busy until now.
  • Understand your colleagues’ cycles of pressure – because they might be very different to yours. Know the cycles of your direct reports, your teammates and even other departments that you collaborate with. Be mindful and respectful of their “peaks”.
  • Band together when your team is headed for a “peak” – act like it’s a team sport and you’re heading into the world cup. Be supportive, be generous with your empathy and make sure everyone is fit and healthy enough to play. That’s what Rory Best would do.

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