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Susan Cole Headshot

An Open Letter to All Business Leaders From Your Stressed-Out Employees

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STRESSED EMPLOYEE
Jamie Grill via Getty Images

Our names could fill a proverbial phone book. Jane, Bob, Mary, Steve. Your typical mid-level stressed-out knowledge worker with management to please, peers to appease, projects to complete. From New York, Boise, Frankfurt, Philadelphia. Finding ourselves in yet another day of trying to answer oceanic swells of emails and instant messages, paddling through back-to-back meetings with nary time to pee all while fruitlessly attempting to protect laughingly small amounts of time set aside for our own tasks and priorities.

We know you can relate. You have soccer games and children to tuck in with bedtime stories and back rubs too. You are also in the business of keeping us motivated and on-track - even though the track seems to be endlessly shifting and turning to the point that we often have no idea where the track even is, we all feel like we're just hurtling off the side of the cliff. The pressure must be enormous, trying to keep it together while making it look effortless to those who count on you, but somewhere deep down surely you feel there must be a better way too.

We are not complaining, but think it's time to get some things out on the table:

  1. This constant multi-tasking is less than optimal. You know the familiar scenario when you're on a conference call and that email catches your eye? You start replying while listening, then moments later someone IMs you with another question, and suddenly you are involved with three things at the same time. Well, truthfully you are no longer listening to the conference call, it's just blah-blah-blah'ing in the background while you are writing back to the email between pauses in the IM conversation.
  2. We find ourselves mostly reacting, not acting. We want to think out of the box, but with so many people needing so many things we instead live on the front lines, battling to get through our inbox and attend the calls we're invited to so as not to seem unresponsive or unimportant. We get swept up in serving the organization more than the customer or ourselves. It's not that we don't have innovative ideas, it's just that space to nurture or share those thoughts is often elusive.
  3. We feel as though we are constantly behind and will never catch up. With everything and everyone in our lives. We double-down on the hanging-on-by-a-thread feeling by covering it up for fear of appearing weak. Sometimes we end up on medical leave. Or overcompensate by becoming aggressive and demanding of others, or perhaps resign to this fate and become one of the "sheeple", trying merely to survive the hurricane we find ourselves in.

This has all crept into the workplace like a slow-progressing disease. With so many ways to connect we are now accustomed to having answers immediately, and the answers we're giving are often coming before the question is fully articulated or understood. Like spiking blood sugar, we get intermittent adrenaline rushes from being so needed that this whole spiral can become an ego trip to nowhere. Even when we do complete projects there is little celebration or reflection as we instantly move on to the next task on the list. We are now recognizing it is slowly eating us alive.

We would really like to make some changes:

  1. Let's create more space to think. Have fewer meetings with fewer people, come prepared and have a clear intention. Send fewer, more thoughtful emails. Be clear about priorities. Work on that which is most important, leave the less important for later or never.
  2. Let's work on being better listeners. Talk less, listen more. And don't just listen with the intent to reply. Listen with the intent to understand. This includes listening to our own intuition.
  3. Let's foster new and useful ideas. Like an infant, anything new is fragile. Anything novel is by definition not common. We need to collectively nurture and foster the new and novel. We do this by holding back our impulses to dismiss and hastily judge. We should push ourselves to be curious about our own thoughts, and the thoughts and ideas of others.
  4. Let's be kinder. The greatest universal human need is to be seen and understood by others. All of us. In the rush to the finish, we can forget that we are all looking for the same thing.

This thing called a business is merely a collection of individuals, just like a person is a collection of cells. And just like a person, when parts of the organization are depleted or diseased, life itself is in jeopardy. The prescription goes well beyond drinking the occasional kale smoothie. To really improve our situation we need to wake up and make some fundamental changes to our corporate cultures -- not just on paper, but in practice.

So help us. Encourage us to change the nasty habits that are contributing our demise, both individually and collectively. Model how to become more present and aware. Nurture us in ways that go beyond mere rhetoric. Value and contribute to space creation -- make it a business imperative. Fuel our creativity and empower us to focus our energy on that which matters most. It will not only benefit us, but who we here to serve -- our customers, our peers, our families, our friends.

Let's get beyond surviving one more day or one more quarter, and instead help us all thrive for the long-term.