Autonomy and personal control are known to help teams and organizations thrive. Being able to decide how you work and perform your tasks can boost engagement towards your work and drive better results both personally and business-wise. The ability to control when, how, and how intensively you work is something knowledge workers really seem to appreciate, but it doesn’t come without risks.
A key component of healthy working is recovery from work-related efforts and stress—without it you risk getting exhausted and burning out, which can lead to multiple mental health issues and prolonged sick leaves. The human cost can be substantial, but so can the cost for a business if absence and turnover rates go up and productivity drops.
A recent study of three Finnish software consultancies has shown that self-managing employees don’t necessarily have the skills or tools to take care of themselves. Companies working in a self-organizing way may be in danger of burning out their employees.
Knowledge workers lack the skills for leading their own well-being and recovery
Not long ago, the World Health Organization finally classified burn-out as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. This global issue isn’t going away any time soon if organizations, teams, and people can’t change the way we work. A healthy, balanced, and sustainable way of working should be the goal for every work community.
Self-managing or self-organizing teams can give the illusion of boosted performance, but if it is because of poor control over how much effort people put into their work, it will never be sustainable. Working long hours is one thing, but if you start forgetting about the seemingly simple stuff such as taking enough breaks, you might be skating on thin ice.
The study of Finnish software consultancies revealed that the practices and working methods knowledge workers use do not support recovery. The interviewed software consultants were not even familiar with the concept of recovery unless they had already faced exhaustion issues and had been instructed on recovery by a healthcare professional.
It seems that knowledge workers are in risk of burning out just because they haven’t experienced a burnout yet and learned the skills to cope with stress and exhaustion the hard way. This needs to change! Self-organizing teams and employees need support both in preventing burnout and developing the skills to manage their work in a more healthy and balanced way.
Successful self-management doesn’t happen without support
Self-managing employees or self-organizing teams may seem very independent and they should be when it comes to their expertise. Even though knowledge workers or experts do not need supervisors to excel in their work, they still need support in organizing their work and scaling their workload, according to the study. The idea of leaders, managers, and supervisors having more of a supporting role is not a new one, but perhaps there has been too little focus on well-being at work?
A great match to support self-management might be servant leadership where you focus your leadership efforts to supporting and empowering your team or employees. Still, it might not be enough to just put the needs of employees first and help them develop and perform as highly as possible.
People are often poor judges of their own limits and they can easily overwork themselves, especially if they don’t get as much feedback on their work as you would get in a traditional organizational setting. This is why a servant leader should also support workers in finding a balance at work—putting enough emphasis on recovery to compensate for the workload.
As a leader, have you thought of these issues related to healthy working?
1. Having too much or too little workload is both detrimental for wellbeing at work and work engagement.
How do you track people’s workload? How often do you discuss workload issues with the teams? Do you act when you find issues such as unbalanced workload or a lot of emotional or mental demands?
2. People have a certain level of personal resources and energy that changes over time, and so does the demands of their work.
How do you account for fluctuations in these resources and demands, e.g. if someone has been sick or sleep deprived, or if a project faces new difficult issues? How do you support developing personal or job resources such as learning new skills or sharing improved ways of working that are associated with less workload or stress? How do you help teams and individuals identify their own limits and accept that they can’t work at peak performance 24/7?
3. Stress and workload has to be balanced with adequate recovery.
How do you teach and share thoughts and ideas about recovery? How do you cultivate a healthy and balanced culture of organizing work and recovery? How do you tackle overworking and show respect for off-work time? Do you recognize the need for recovery in your team? Do you promote recovery during work, e.g. taking enough breaks or having proper lunch?
4. Self-managing or self-organizing teams and individuals can usually handle a lot by themselves, but there are still external pressures that they have poor control over.
Do you make resource shortages the issue of individuals or do you handle them on the supervisor or management level? If you don’t have enough people working on a project, do you make it possible to scale down that project? How do you listen to teams and identify these emerging issues that the teams or individuals can’t handle by themselves?
Tackling self-management issues with servant leadership supported by digital tools
As companies grow and teams become more self-managed, a leader might not be able to keep track of people’s stress or well-being levels. In a perfect world, you would have such relationships between co-workers and supervisors that you can “feel the pulse” at any given moment and act fast if someone starts to get exhausted.
This is hardly ever the case, and as work becomes more distributed, remote, and varied, staying on top of well-being at work will become harder. The question is, do servant leaders get enough support to excel in their jobs? We believe this is why novel digital tools are a must.
Fortunately, we have seen a rise in digital tools such as pulse surveys that try to tackle this issue. In this age of data, leaders usually start with survey tools to keep track of well-being related metrics just as any other KPIs. In the near future, we believe that we will be moving to the next level—from data collection to helping leaders as well as knowledge workers themselves to understand healthy working better and to craft their jobs towards this goal.
As a well-being focused servant leader you are not just helping your teams to succeed and thrive, you are helping them to thrive in a sustainable way. To help you in that endeavor, we at Emooter have developed digital tools both for tracking well-being in a frictionless and engaging way but also for learning and addressing emerging issues such as inadequate recovery.