Why You Still Need to Take Time Off in a Time of Crisis

When uncertainty and stress levels are running high, leaders need to be hyper-cognizant of both their well-being and that of their employees.

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By David Partain

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When a crisis hits your business, your initial urge might be to put your nose to the grindstone. Of course, you want to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks, and that you're alert to any solutions that may help your business stay stable. But constantly keeping your nose to that grindstone is only going to give you a raw nose, figuratively speaking. And it might not be the best for your company, either.

In an emergency, stress is higher than ever

Any crisis — whether it is a hurricane, fire, fraud, or a pandemic — naturally elevates the level of stress you and your workers feel. Even if you do not work longer hours (which you likely will), there is bound to be increased uncertainty and worry about what will happen, and you might find that resources are far scarcer than is optimal for moving forward. At the same time, most leaders understand that others are evaluating their performance through the crisis to determine whether those with authority truly deserve it. There is enormous pressure to get the response right, even if the crisis is unprecedented and has no playbook for you to follow.

The effect of stress on workers, leaders, and the general public is well-documented. We know, for example, that it can interfere with sleep, elevate blood pressure, and stifle creativity. Now that many of us are working from home, it may be even tougher to turn your brain off when you are asleep. During this time I have often woken up in the middle of the night, remembering something that I need to do and, instead of tackling it in the morning, I'll get up and start working. And while everyone's stress tolerance is unique, the main point is that times of crisis can be some of the most difficult when it comes to staying productive and preserving mental and physical health. Conversely, when you take effective steps to minimize the stress you experience, you protect decision making, mood, and the ability to produce great ideas, all of which actually up the odds you'll respond to the dilemmas in front of you more appropriately.

Related: 5 Science-Based Tips for Reducing Work-Related Stress

How to ensure you and your team can step away

What reduces stress for people is not uniform. Anything from reading books to taking walks can work. So there is no need for you to conform to a script when it comes to finding some peace. The real issue is simply being able to step confidently away from your work to do whatever activities appeal to you. For the Harvard Business Review, Sabina Nawaz outlined some tips for managers to enable their employees to find some balance while working from home. They include:

  • Offering increased clarity about vacation/time off policies, as well as other health references
  • Redefining vacations (e.g., time for family, caregiving, and self-care instead of travel)
  • Demonstrating care for your workforce (e.g., offering more flexibility)
  • Modeling behaviors (e.g., letting workers see you unplug, setting boundaries)
  • Changing durations (e.g., frequent short breaks instead of sporadic long ones, as higher stress requires more frequent recuperation)
  • Activating your team (e.g., asking workers to cover for each other)

Of course, this is only a start. You might also find, for instance, that automation could lend a hand or that tricks like the Pomodoro technique allow you to focus well so you can efficiently complete work tasks. And having a well thought out, comprehensive disaster recovery or emergency plan in place will naturally eliminate some kinks that would likely occur if you didn't design protocols in advance.

Related: Why the Pomodoro Technique Is Failing You

It's also important to remember that the unexpected is a hallmark of a crisis. Trying to anticipate every teeny scenario is impossible and will only make the stress of the situation worse. Do your best to focus only on the risks most likely to materialize. Researchers and data analysts are your friends for this purpose.

Lastly, as you prepare for and work through a crisis, realize that you have a rare opportunity to reassess your larger business, industry, and cultural systems. For instance, increased days of paid leave can make breaks economically easier to take, and abandoning the concept of specific work shifts in favor of optimum performance can encourage you and your team to clock time when you truly feel motivated and refreshed throughout the day.

A crisis is not a time for a leader to tuck tail. Effective crisis management requires keeping a cool head, and you cannot do that well if you are on call 24/7. Shift your mindset to view taking breaks as an essential part of your response and ensure your team feels comfortable logging off when needed, especially when it's so easy to stay constantly logged on now that so many of us are remote. Looking at your everyday and systemic operations in a multidimensional, interpersonally connected, critical way will help you restructure what holds you back from encouraging and taking stress-relieving time off when it's needed most.

David Partain

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

CMO of FlexShares

David Partain is SVP of Northern Trust and CMO of their subsidiary, FlexShares Exchange Traded Funds. He has over 15 years of marketing, sales and finance expertise and was named one of the "20 Rising Stars in Finance" by the Gramercy Institute.

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