What to do if you’re feeling hopeless about the world.

We have access to more instant information than ever before but doom-scrolling through bad news about huge problems can become stressful and overwhelming. Current world events are scary, confronting and distressing. From the divisiveness of the Voice referendum vote this weekend, to the spiralling cost of living, to climate change through to the Israel Palestine war, it can feel like everything is going wrong. It is easy to feel depressed about the state of the world.

On a planet with eight billion people, it’s easy to feel disconnected. But when a world tragedy strikes, feelings of worry, sadness and grief are quite common. When we see upsetting information, our bodies react instinctively by releasing stress hormones to deal with the negative emotions. As news outlets and social media feeds are skewed towards reporting bad news over good news, this can create long-term negative effects on our wellbeing.

“If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”

It’s normal to feel discouraged about the world.

Lots of bad things happen in the world, and feeling bad about them is a normal reaction. It’s okay to feel:

  • Grief about what’s been lost.
  • Anxious about what’s going to happen next.
  • Overwhelmed by how big the problems are, or how much work it will take to solve them.
  • Disillusioned by the people in positions of power.
  • Fear and worry for our children.
  • Guilty for not doing more.
  • Paralysed by all these feelings.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart…I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right.”

Anne Frank

So, what helps?

The desire to help make the world a better place is an incredible thing. If you notice what is going wrong in the world and feel a responsibility to make it better, that says something really positive about who you are.

Here are a few ways you can regain a sense of power and hope:

  • Make time for self-care. Don’t feel guilty about doing something for you. When you feel refreshed and valued, you’ll have more of yourself to give.
  • Make space for gratitude. You do not have to ignore the bad things to see the good things too. Consciously inventory the things you are grateful for.
  • Disconnect from social media. Give yourself windows of time device free. Balance being informed with being mentally healthy.
  • Acknowledge negative emotions without dwelling on them. Our negative emotions guide and protect us and motivate us to make changes. It is when we fixate on them that they start to take over.
  • Take solace in nature. When the human world feels too much, taking a step back and mindfully tuning into nature can offer us some peace, and perhaps moments of hope.
  • Verify your news sources. Are you getting information from reputable, objective sources that are emotionally neutral?
  • Accept your level of control. When something bad happens, our immediate response may be to ask ourselves what we can do to help, and how we can put an end to it. Feeling helpless is a natural response, and one that can cause stress.
  • Watch out for what you say out loud. Negative language is insidious and potent. Be mindful of what you’re thinking and saying. Whilst those around you influence you and your mood, we have more control over our thoughts and feelings than anyone else. And what we say out loud also carries significant weight. Research suggests that it is ten times more harmful to our sense of thiving if we verbalise a thought than if we just think it.
  • Protect our children. Monitor social media use and access to distressing content to protect your children from viewing harmful content. Have age appropriate discussions with them about their fears and worries and try and promote a sense of safety and hope.
  • Look for the helpers. The peace-makers, the brave, the volunteers, the kind, the emergency services and medical personnel. You will always find people who are helping.

False urgency killing our culture.

“When everything is urgent, nothing really is”.

Urgency culture, the idea that we are all available on demand almost all the time, didn’t start with the pandemic, but the pandemic has worsened and entrenched it. Our notions of availability have both begun to dissolve and expand simultaneously. False urgency embeds itself as a toxic part of work culture, becoming the new norm by stealth. If you and your team find yourselves in a state of chronic and acute reactivity, it is likely that you are operating within an urgency culture that causes more harm than productivity. Urgency culture inevitably leads to burnout and a perpetual state of overwhelm and perma-stress. 

Managers and employees who see every change as the most important and cannot identify priorities fall prey to false urgency. These are the organisations that tend to “boil the ocean” and go overboard making the task or project unnecessarily difficult. Managers think if their employees are showing desperate energy, such as running from meeting to meeting, then they have a sense of urgency, and it can also make the employee feel as though they excel at firefighting. Mindless busyness becomes the norm.

The hyper-productivity trap.

This sense of urgency, impatience, and scarce over-booked time has become pervasive and is a recipe for making poor decisions and wasting a lot more time down the track. Rushing and running in many directions does not equate to progress or value creation. There is a vast difference between planned operational tempo and hysteria and anxiety. Operating under chronic pressure and constantly reacting to perceived external events turns urgency into a toxic soup. We end up spending our days (and nights) dealing with self-inflicted fires.

Urgent is stressful because managers equate a state of constant alert with high performance. They make people jump from one fire to another instead of doing meaningful work. They create a culture of grind, burnout, and resentment. People simply can’t get work done at work anymore and increasingly try to do so outside of scheduled business hours. Time panic convinces our ancient survival brains that we are under serious threat, activating fight-flight mechanisms and compromising wellbeing. Urgency is good only when it is a component of prioritisation and planning but very bad when it becomes the default operating mode for a company.

“Technology has played a large role in amping up the hyperventilation, creating an illusion that the speed with which communications travel can be duplicated by the humans on the other end of them. Devices and the interruptions they rain down on us have also undermined attention spans, and with that the ability to regulate impulse control.”

Joe Robinson

Symptoms of false urgency.

  • Your team uses phrases like “smashed”, “chaos”, “out of control”, “frantic”, “crazy”, “hectic” or “manic” to describe business-as-usual tempo. Bonus points if they are used competitively or to suggest heroic effort.
  • Diaries are filled with back-to-back meetings.
  • Projects spawn organically without clear integration and alignment with the organisation’s vision and mission and operational imperatives.
  • Overwhelm and/or apathy is a common response to new goals or duties or challenges.
  • Stress levels run high as evidenced by outbursts of frustration or anger and rising health concerns.
  • Passive aggressive behaviour is common e.g. deliberate procrastination, sabotage, sarcasm, pretending not to understand, blaming, withholding information, excessive electronic communication to avoid F2F, gossip.
  • There is a pervasive belief in the team that people are always being pushed to the limit in each moment and most days are bad days at work.
  • Poor decision making including emotional decisions, snap decisions or an absence of decisions.
  • A crisis mentality prevails those rewards “individual heroics,” which cause people to believe they can interrupt anyone at any time, which drives more time panic as the interruptions make people fall behind in their work.
  • Expectations of instant response to emails, no matter how innocuous they may be, with no regard for the time of day or day of week.
  • Urgency manifests itself as relentless multitasking and is used a motivator, with time equated to commitment.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Abe Lincoln

Multitasking exercise.

Practical tips for fending off urgency culture.

  • Detail any after-hour expectations in writing so your colleagues and employers know exactly where you stand and what can be expected from you.
  • Be sparing on sending emails and digital messages after work hours.
  • Try to curb using certain words and phrases including “urgent,” “immediately,” “I need this before you go home,” etc.
  • Don’t make being available on demand a badge of honour or rewards individual heroics. Be an advocate for a healthy work-life balance.
  • Communicate critical deadlines calmly and try not to allow your own stress to colour your communication.
  • Plan your workload strategically to reduce the likelihood of urgent and last-minute requests.
  • Set limits on checking email during the day and quarantine “deep thinking” time.

Leadership, Wellbeing & Burnout.

“We believe that when leaders take care of themselves, they are much more able to take care of their employees to be empathetic, creative, inspiring. But when they’re depleted, running on empty and burnt out, it’s much harder to lead from what is best in them. Role modelling is key because we are changing an entire culture that used to believe that burnout is simply the price you pay for success.”

Ariana Huffington

DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast from 2021 reveals that 60% of leaders feel used up at the end of the workday. I suspect at least some of the remaining 40% were not being entirely honest. And while mental health and wellbeing are firmly top of mind for many organisations, senior leaders can be some of the most reluctant to manage their own wellbeing.

Leaders set the mood and tone of the work environment and make or break a culture of well-being. As a leader you are one of the most influential aspects in the workplace on a person’s well-being, their discretionary effort and whether they stay in their role. A stressed, overwhelmed, and exhausted senior leader becomes hamstrung not only in making essential strategic and financial decisions but also in having less in the proverbial leadership tank to support employees.

You are a representative of the organisation. You have a responsibility to ensure that you deliver the outcomes expected to achieve the purpose of the organisation, so it is important that you are operating at your best to achieve those outcomes. This includes your health and wellbeing. You function as a role model. Looking after your health and wellbeing contributes to establishing an appropriate workplace culture and means that you are an example to those around you.

The tone you set in the workplace needs to balance achieving work objectives with how those results are achieved. Prioritising work deliverables at the expense of your team members, and your own health and wellbeing, can send the message that people are easily replaceable and compromised health is expected, with resilience and wellbeing weaponised under the guise of work ethic and commitment.

Your own sense of job satisfaction, success and well-being is important. Looking after yourself is as important as the technical expertise, skills, and knowledge you bring to your role. If you are not thriving, it is difficult to effectively deliver and role-model positive behaviours to your team. You can have a more positive impact on the organisation, on people and on your life and career if you don’t neglect yourself.

Traditionally, senior managers are tasked with responsibilities that reflect their level of expertise and career development. Historically, wellbeing took a back seat as the drive for results and fulfilling “more important’ company demands took priority. It requires a fundamental shift in mindset and core beliefs from viewing wellbeing as something you try to maintain on the side of your job, to recognising it as a prerequisite for sustainable high performance. The approach for supporting the mental health of senior managers must be specific, even beyond what is recommended for the employees they manage.

“In order to bring out the best in people, you need to give them your best.”

Omar Suleiman

Warning signs.

What are your warning signs that chronic stress is heading towards burnout?
Are you:

  • More irritable or frustrated.
  • Overwhelmed by minor tasks.
  • Unable to relax or rest without feeling guilty.
  • Finding it hard to get to sleep or stay asleep.
  • Vague, unable to concentrate or focus for long periods, forgetful.
  • Experiencing tension in your neck, back, shoulders and jaw.
  • Too exhausted for self-care like exercise.
  • Disconnecting from those around you.
  • Getting sick all the time.

Many leaders and their teams are feeling drained, stressed, and burnt out right now. You owe it to yourself and your people to step out, refresh, connect, think deeper, and rediscover your wellbeing and spark.