The Cure for Stress and Burnout is Purpose

By Jaime McDaniel, Canadian Management Centre

Cure for Stress and Burnout Image

Your team is under pressure, working harder than ever, distracted by a global environment of fear and uncertainty, and perhaps also by a home environment of chaos and bored children, not knowing what their lives or their jobs will look like in the weeks and months to come. How do you keep them focused, clear-headed and productive in spite of it all? 

Let’s take a cue from 2 companies operating deep in the trenches of this crisis: leaders at Gilead Sciences (producer of antiviral drug Remdesivir) and Merck and Co. (vaccine researchers) both highlight the importance of purpose and meaningful work for keeping their teams going under intense pressure in this recent podcast. As Gilead’s CHRO Jyoti Mehra says, “our core purpose of why we exist and the work that we do has never been more clear and more true.” 

Here’s some more to know about purpose and stress in the work context: 

  • Stress is a big problem right now. High levels of stress are extremely common during the current pandemic (and were quite high even before.) A poll from early May found that 44 per cent of Canadians are feeling stressed regularly or all the time because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Another 38 per cent of respondents said they felt stress occasionally. Furthermore, 4/10 Canadians say their mental health is worse now than before the pandemic. 
  • Not all stress is the same. Stress can be a positive force that motivates us to engage. It can be pervasive yet still manageable through normal self-care. Or it can be toxic, literally flooding our body with hormones we can’t process and obscuring our ability to think and focus. 
  • Sense of threat = degree of stress. Closely related to the stress we experience is our threat level.  At Level 1, our awareness of threat makes us more alert and we actually can think, function and make decisions quite well. At Level 2, the heart rate speeds up, stress hormones are released, and cognition starts to become impaired. At Level 3, forget about it. Higher level thinking has all but vanished and people act on instinct and emotional impulses. 
  • Good news: purpose and meaning mitigate threat levels. Researchers have found that shared goals and a sense of being involved in something meaningful enable people to take more stress and pain without a corresponding rise in threat. A recent employee poll conducted at Gilead showed that most workers’ threat levels were at 1 or 2, despite the pressure and intensity of the moment- and this applied to support teams and functions throughout the organization, not only the frontline researchers. The reason: employees feel anchored in the company’s mission of producing life-saving medications and are able to channel their emotions and energies towards that goal. 
  • Saving the world isn’t the only way to have purpose. Your company may not be in the business of saving lives and that’s okay. You can still find ways to enhance your team members’ sense of engaging in meaningful and purpose-driven work. 
  • Express appreciation and gratitude for your employees’ contributions and clearly connect what they do to your organization’s mission - and perhaps to its efforts to survive and thrive in the new reality. At the team level, help everyone to understand each other’s roles and realities and foster an environment of support and solidarity. Being there for one’s colleagues and friends is an important motivator and source of meaning. 
  • Empower employee development. At Merck, employees who cannot directly support the mission are finding meaning through virtual learning and development opportunities - enhancing their skills and leadership capabilities to gear up for the future and move closer to their goals. Virtual learning can be as effective—or even more effective - than in-person workshops, and people’s desire to use their time productively means that if you don’t provide opportunities, they will spend the time learning to make sourdough bread instead. 
  • Help them help others. People aren’t just worried about their organizations’ well-being, of course; they are also deeply concerned about their family, community and the world at large. Some may wish to volunteer to deliver groceries to elderly neighbors, for example, or donate time to tutoring kids struggling with remote schooling, or just be there for friends or family members who are suffering.  Be flexible with work schedules and expectations so that team members feel able to care for their loved ones and contribute to the world beyond their home offices to whatever extent they are able. 

Bottom line: Connecting to a larger purpose and contributing to the greater good are essential for bolstering resilience and supporting our team’s - and our own- well-being, especially in times of crisis. 

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