By early 2021, I felt like the egg in the, “This is your brain on drugs” TV commercial: fried. Work, once my drug of choice, was an addiction I had already overcome and three of the companies I helped manage were in crisis. In the months prior, JumpCrew had become fully remote while many of its clients struggled to stay afloat. In March 2020, I acquired a live-streaming company called YouNow, which initially experienced explosive growth at the start of the pandemic and was in need of a reboot, as people were able to socialize again. Staff Management, the largest company in this group with over 4000 temporary workers, had navigated deftly around the pandemic to avoid disaster and was starting to thrive. By summer, I had over-cycled my brain working sixty-plus hours a week, not to mention my #1 responsibility as a single dad.
But everything has a cost, and I was paying it. Splitting headaches. Insomnia. Fatigue. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my daily forty-five minute Peloton rides that had become a Facetime race with my friends from high school. The headaches needed attention, they were scary. Depending on which specialist I saw, it was either a pinched nerve in my neck, migraines, or TMJ, and none of the diagnoses made any sense to me. I was suffering from a classic case of burnout.
A prior bout of the same, six years earlier, landed me on a year-long sabbatical in Barcelona. This time, I decided to try harder to avoid the need for a prolonged break. After months of doctor visits and logging my headaches, I resumed meditating regularly and made sleep a priority. Some nights, I just willed myself to sleep a full 8 hours, and slowly, everything changed. Once upon a time, my personal goals were mostly about business and financial success, but that’s changed, too. Now, my primary goal is to be healthy—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. That’s how I can be my best. That’s how I can show up for myself and for others at home and at work.
Meditation and sleep have done far more than improve my energy level and concentration. Now, I’m less susceptible to an “emo” reaction to something one might do or say. I’m more mindful and even-tempered. I find myself thinking more about how to invest in my local community and the community of people at JumpCrew. It’s shocking that a little more awareness, some meditations, and sleep could have such a powerful impact on my life, but slowly and over a few months, they did.
As we adapt to this new era of remote work and new demands on our time, I believe one of the factors holding us back is a misapprehension of the balance we need to maintain mental health. School, work, and society have programmed us to be active and assertive, constantly doing more—hitting the gym, seeing a therapist, taking online courses—in the belief that we can will ourselves happier and healthier. But what if mental health is about subtraction, slowing down? About not always leading and finding the right people and right times to follow and about achieving balance by acting with more intention, learning to say “no” and doing less?
We face strange, unpredictable, and complex circumstances in our working lives. On one hand, many are choosing to work at home, either isolated from people or bombarded by family all day; connected to our colleagues and friends through endless Zoom calls and Slack huddles. The days run together, static and with little outside stimulus, or we’re like circus performers juggling flaming torches, except the torches are work, family life, pets, kids’ homework, and self-care. They’re all competing for our time and the boundaries between them have become irrevocably blurred.
Put all this together and you have a potent recipe for burnout and damaged mental health. Once, burnout was the product of ceaseless work without meaning or control. Now, it’s a result of existing amidst a kind of white noise, an environment of loneliness without challenge or connection to our work place. We’re being asked to be hyper-aware of our own limits and be mindful of our needs, but we’re not accustomed to doing that. Is it any wonder that we’re riddled with anxiety or feeling completely out of balance, either working 24/7 or barely working at all?
As the work-from-home world has changed the nature of burnout, it’s also changed the nature of the cure. In the past, the prescription was, quite simply, rest. Time away from the rigors of work to restore body and mind. But what happens when burnout is the result of tedium and a dearth of human connection? What happens when we’ve rested too much, or had things so easy that we’ve forgotten about the thrill of overcoming obstacles and solving problems? In the past year, I’ve learned that we are creatures of the “delta”—of change from one state to the next. We thrive and grow when we lean into change, which is why remote work has raised a particular challenge. It’s so easy to turn off the growth opportunity, just manage activities, and avoid the effort it takes to make a relationship on Zoom. It’s ultimately easiest to just look for another job rather than invest in turning the current one into a growth opportunity.
The answer? There is no single answer, but there are some persuasive hints at what will work. Behind everything else, there’s the need for balance—balance of challenge and rest, companionship and solitude, struggle and success. At JumpCrew, I’ve seen personal engagement work wonders through peer learning and facilitated communication; the data suggests it’s the single biggest success in our effort to create connections and community. But engagement must also be counterbalanced by healthy solo time, when people can practice self-care without being burdened by the demands of the office. By the same token, when things come too easily for too long, we can become torpid and lazy, losing our competitive edge and fire. Whenever we tip too far toward an extreme, whether that’s obsessive overwork or lack of sleep, it’s crucial that we go to the other side for a while in order to regain our equilibrium.
But this unique moment requires something more, something I call personal innovation. We tend to think of innovation as something sourced from the organization. An innovative idea might have its origins in the mind of some daring designer or engineer, but it comes to fruition through the iterations of teams and the decisions of leaders. But during a time when workers are experiencing unprecedented autonomy, doesn’t it make sense that we should all be responsible for innovating in our work-from-home lives—taking creative risks and making bold changes in how we manage our time, balancing our personal lives, getting enough sleep, and even curating our physical workspace?
If employees thrive on contrast and change, now is the time they should be bringing innovation to how, when, where, and why they work. Employees should be changing the rules and changing the game, so they can bring their best, healthiest selves to meet the challenges required to accelerate their own achievement, satisfaction, and fulfillment. Employers should be encouraging individualism, because, truthfully, what other choice do we have?
Leaders Should Struggle
For leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs, the antidote to our teams’ mental health challenges isn’t just change, but challenge. After all, the best leaders are the ones who struggle, adapt, and rise above hardship to find success. And fortunately, the challenge of turning remote work from a source of frustration and cost to a strategic and tactical weapon provides us with the perfect opportunity to rise to the occasion. But that only happens when we lean into it, roll up our sleeves, and embrace the difficulties and different demands of remote work—and in the end, show the world exactly who we are and what kind of skills we bring.
As Jessica Nordlander, COO of ThoughtExchange, wrote in Inc., “To navigate change while at the same time maintaining integrity and effective communication is a talent that’s the preserve of a special few. It’s not a skill set you can obtain through a master’s degree, an MBA program, or any number of inspiring TED Talks — it needs to be forged in the fire of actually leading teams through these challenging circumstances. The winners in this scenario are not the ones who didn’t struggle. The winners are the ones who struggled and triumphed, because they will emerge from this crisis stronger, more adaptable, and more capable than ever before.”
There will be leaders—and some individual contributors—who will scoff at the idea of curating a successful remote work experience that’s different, and who’ll accuse me of wanting to coddle people as though they’re all special snowflakes. But if we want to prevent the new burnout crisis, we have to embrace the unique challenges of long term remote work; aggressively promote change as a way of keeping work, and our minds, fresh and vibrant; encourage questions not only about the work we do but why we should care about it; reward individual innovation; adapt to the new era rather than fight it. Because whether we like it or not, there is no going back.
In Remote Leadership, David Pachter details how a highly functioning remote workforce is impossible without first establishing a vibrant and scalable corporate culture. This is an important book for the post-pandemic business world.