As we return to busy work schedules, family life and social engagements, how can we make sure we don’t rush back too quickly, and risk burnout?
Two years ago, Amy Thomson, CEO and founder of the global health tech platform, Moody, lived the fast-paced life of a tech entrepreneur, jetting between London and New York, immersed in gruelling funding rounds while running her business with staff in both cities.
Ironically, she had set this latest venture up after suffering burnout from a previous entrepreneurial company – and she was slipping back into old habits.
But as lockdowns loomed, and the world was slowing down, she had a chance to reflect. She moved her life, and business, to Lisbon. It made commercial sense “we receive EU funding and needed an EU base after Brexit and we have a manufacturing operation based in Portugal,” she explains; but it was also a personal decision. “I realised that hectic cities, like London and NYC, are inefficient for productivity and innovation, and they affect my health,” she says.
Now that restrictions are easing, she has no plans to rush back into unhealthy habits of her former life. These days instead of working late every night, she goes surfing. “By understanding how stress affects our focus, productivity and memory, I am hyper aware of when to take breaks and when to push through.”
While not everyone has moved countries like Thomson, the pandemic has been a chance to reset and examine what we really want. “Some people have had the time to reflect on their lives, what they’ve been missing out on and how they can live differently moving forward,” Dr Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa, says.
Almost half of those surveyed in Bupa Global’s 2021 Executive Wellbeing Index1 have decided to work fewer hours in an effort to recalibrate their work-life balance, 37% have encouraged more flexible work practices in general, with nearly three quarters of HNWIs from the United Arab Emirates preferring flexible working patterns.
But Dr Vandenabeele warns about rushing back to being busy. “There is a danger that we over commit to meetings, work and travel now that the world is opening up, to overcompensate for ‘time lost’ during lockdown. People need to be mindful of the impact of their excitement and enthusiasm to return to work or travel, take on new tasks or challenges, as over a period of time this could lead to burnout.”
While many thought that working from home would help calibrate a work-life balance – according to Bupa Global’s survey in 2020, nearly 40% planned to work more from home2 – after successive lockdowns now 70% of the high-net-worth individuals surveyed by Bupa Global feel that it actually harms their mental health.
Part of that is due to the blurring of boundaries between home and work – and the inability to switch off. Last July, a Harvard University study analysed millions of work patterns and found that employees who worked from home worked nearly 50 minutes more per day3.
For others, it was the competing pressure of work and home schooling. More than 80 per cent of parents in Hong Kong who had to home school and work at the same time reported the highest levels of stress, as reported by South China Morning Post4.
The new world of work could, then, be a hybrid between home and office life to harness the benefits of both. One UK survey found that most British workers want to work from home for two days per week5 , while a report from McKinsey6 found that about 20 to 25 percent of the workforces in advanced economies could work from home between three and five days a week.
Going back to the office – as studies show those in Asian countries are more likely to do7 – does have its benefits. A recent survey8 of employees found that so called “casual communication”, informally known as watercooler chat – helps employees remain positive and motivated.
“I think traditional office environments are a thing of the past,” Jonny Edser, founder and managing director of Wildgoose Events, which conducted the survey, says. “Companies and employees are realising that the pandemic has modernised their working lives in more ways than one. Whilst I’ll always enjoy seeing my colleagues and clients in-person, my experiences as a business owner during the pandemic have highlighted just how flexible remote and hybrid working models can be.”
Edser says the pandemic “made me, like many business owners, more aware of mine and my colleagues’ mental health.” In response he – like many global companies including P&G India and Microsoft – introduced mental health support over the pandemic. “I think the signs of burnout and isolation can be easily missed when in the comfort of our own homes, so I continue to introduce wellbeing practices and tools into my workplace routine and support my team to do the same.”
Encouragingly Bupa Global’s data shows executives around the world report similar schemes to support workplace wellbeing and mental health, with UAE leading the way, with 77% of organisations having initiatives in place, and a further 19% having them in the pipeline.
With new ways of working, there is a renewed need to put boundaries in place to protect mental health. “There is a risk that as we go back into the office, we are still going to be on standby outside work hours and we may lose that demarcation between work and home life. It’s important to make the boundaries between home and work life clear to avoid working before you arrive at the office and once you’ve gone home to relax,” Dr Vandenabeele says.
Self care strategies
But it could also be about finding time to keep up – or start new – self-care strategies. “It’s important to really reflect on which elements of life did change for the better and to implement these into routines moving forwards.” Dr Vandenabeele says. “For example, by working one day a week in the office, I’ve heard from some people that they’re choosing to go for a cycle in the time that they would normally commute to work.”
According to Bupa Global’s research, nearly half of respondents worldwide listed exercise as their preferred coping strategy, with three quarters of HNWIs from the UAE the most likely to have started, or increased, exercise in the past year, followed by those from Hong Kong (55%), China (45%) and Singapore (45%).
One positive wellbeing strategy that the Executive Wellbeing Index found was that over a quarter reported spending time in nature every day. It is something that Claire Thompson, author of Mindfulness and the Natural World, has noticed. “I think the pandemic left people with less opportunity for other activities and freed up time for exploring the natural world,” she says. “I know many people who developed or enhanced their bond with nature over the last 18 months.”
For some, it seems, COVID-19 has been a wake-up call, making them prioritise good health now – and planning preventive precautions for the future. “The world is now laser focused on daily health and the importance of preventative health habit forming,” Amy Thomson adds. “It's a lifestyle that changes your life when you tune into it.”