Leadership consultant Shane Cradock explores the primary causes of separation anxiety at work – and how you can solve it.
Our family dog Sparky, who’s a terrier, gets serious separation anxiety whenever he loses sight of my wife, Judy.
Now Sparky is about 16 years old and with his elderly status has come declining eyesight, hearing and mobility. It’s amazing to watch how much stress he creates for himself until Judy returns home each day.
While some may laugh at this story about a four-legged animal, have you ever considered that you or others around you may have the same afflictions as Sparky?
A new term has been added to the never-ending list of phrases in the workplace, and that is ‘workplace separation anxiety’ (WSA).
WSA is a disorder affecting employees who feel the need to ensure everything happens ‘as it should’ on the job, even if it’s not their responsibility or when they are not literally ‘on the job’.
This may sound a lot like a control freak to many, but before we dismiss WSA as a real and serious condition, we must consider our own behaviour and whether it matches with what we think we’re doing.
How were you during your holidays this year, for example? Could you be fully present and detach from the office completely? Or did you just have to check in with your emails?
Are you someone who takes sneaky looks at emails over the weekend, or late at night just before sleep? Is email the first thing you do after waking up every morning?
In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development recently found that 83pc of employers have seen employees refusing to take sick leave in the past 12 months. Half observed employees regularly working outside of contracted hours to get work done, and more than a quarter continue to work through their holidays, despite being out of the office.
Workplace separation anxiety is becoming a serious health risk. Over the summer, the World Health Organisation (WHO) added ‘work burnout’ to its International Classification of Diseases catalogue.
The WHO determined that burnout can result in severe physical, mental, and emotional fatigue, heightened stress, and an increased likelihood of catching colds or flu. Added stress can also affect short-term memory, concentration, analysis and decision-making.
This isn’t exactly the recipe for high-performing teams. With over 20 years’ experience working with leaders across over 50 industries, I believe taking a real break from the office is more challenging than ever for employees.
There are three reasons for this:
We live in an age of huge disruption and competition. Industries everywhere are changing rapidly and with that change comes challenge and uncertainty. Employees today are expected to do more with less and there is no guarantee of job security.
With that as a backdrop, it’s easy to see why people are afraid to be out of the loop for any period of time.
When a tired and overworked client told me that he hadn’t taken a holiday in four years because it was too risky, I challenged him. “What would it take for you to go on holidays for two weeks minimum and not have to check in with the office once?” I asked.
His answers transformed the way he looked at the business. He realised that he was the bottleneck holding the business back. A lack of the correct structures and systems in place contributed to his feelings of anxiety about not being in the office.
Industrial age approach to the digital age
Most work practices were born from the Industrial Revolution. Technology was supposed to be our great liberator, but for most it has become our jailer. Many people are using a model for working and living that’s out of date.
For example, most jobs are not about time any more, they’re about results and adding value – but most people feel like they have to put in the hours to be seen to be committed to the cause. The digital age enables us to be connected 24/7.
The challenge in front of us isn’t to create new policies to deal with WSA. It’s for leaders to ask themselves, “What do we need to do differently to create workplaces that allow for our people to thrive?”.
The benefits to the organisation will far outweigh any concern over being ‘too soft’ on people. The bottom line is that over time, people who are suffering will impact the bottom line.
Here are some ideas for CEOs and managers to consider:
They need to understand the real benefits to stepping away from work
Top athletes understand the power and benefits of recovery and rest. Indeed, if they’re performing all the time with no breaks, it would be seen as crazy. Why would a leader be any different? It’s a strategy that’s doomed to fail.
Critically, discuss this with your team and have an open dialogue about changes they would like to see. Often talking it out with others will make people more aware of their own behaviour.
They should learn how to make themselves unavailable
I recall arguing with a CEO in the UK that she was too available to her team and that she had built in a dependency on her. This meant her key people couldn’t develop quickly, which ultimately weakened the business. She disagreed strongly.
She was forced to step out of the business for several months due to a serious illness, and all of her key people had to step up. They did a great job without any help from her. This was a game-changer for how she looked at her role in the business, and on her return she let people continue with what they had started.
This freed her up to undertake more strategic work, which saw a dramatic reduction in her stress levels.
CEOs and managers need to develop outside interests or hobbies
Interests and hobbies are great for fun, distraction and giving your mind a break. One Irish CEO kept bemoaning not being able to play golf once a week with some friends because the business needed him there.
He managed to reshuffle his work schedule and now plays every week and feels re-energised because he’s away from the workplace. This is a fine example of how energy can benefit the business.
Watch your own behaviour
If your team see you sending emails at 1am, you have to ask yourself what example you are setting. People model what they see, not what they hear. Are you creating a culture that is detrimental to the long-term success of your organisation?
As entrepreneur and educator Keith Cunningham says: “Your net worth is not your self-worth”. Yet, most of what we’re told and taught in society is just that, and our identities are more entwined with our work roles and personal brands. These are important things, but if you over-identify with them, pain is inevitable.
My dog, Sparky, may not have a conscious choice in how his anxiety in controlled, but CEOs and managers don’t have the same excuse.
Shane Cradock provides consultancy and coaching for entrepreneurs, executives and their teams, specialising in improving performance and productivity. He has more than 20 years of experience working with leaders across more than 50 industries.