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How you can spread joy not stress as a manager this festive season

This time of year can be full on, with the Christmas parties, looming deadlines and Christmas and New Year celebration preparations. It's a time of year, which should be full of joy and some cherished time to relax and reconnect with family, but which can often feel like a full on sprint to an invisible finish line, which leaves us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted in body and mind.

One of the key stressors that employees report at this time of year, is the expectation (whether explicit or implicit) from senior managers that they should remain available to respond to client queries, even when they are on holiday. It’s this invisible stress that not only impacts employees but, it turns out, can also impact negatively on their families.

Research conducted by Virginia Tech University, which was published in 2018, found that the mere expectation on being available to respond to out of hours email communications, not only caused the individual employee to feel more stressed (irrespective of whether they actually had to do work), but that stress also spread through the family unit, negatively impacting on family members. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so much of a surprise, given the vast plethora of research that exists around emotional contagion.

Other research had linked these out of hours work expectations to greater work/family conflict which can negatively impact personal relationships and can lead to feelings of isolation and separation. To add to the pressures felt by employees, the aftermath of Covid is still impacting how people work, one study published in 2022 reported that “availability expectations” was associated with higher levels of demands, role conflicts, neck pain, mental distress, thinking that work was not finished when going to bed, sleep problems, work–private life conflict, intentions to leave and with lower levels of superior support, co-worker support, fair leadership, and commitment.

As a manager, you have a pivotal role in setting the explicit expectations that your team will adhere to. Unfortunately, more often than not, I tend to hear of team members adhering to implicit expectations rather than explicit expectations, because the manager has not communicated clearly what they expect of their team. Instead, people have inferred what is expected, based on their manager’s behaviours (which aren’t necessarily conducive to optimum performance or wellbeing). Other times, when a manager has been explicit, their expectations ended up creating more stress than the situation warranted.

Invariably, if you, as a manager, want to spread more joy rather than stress this Christmas, the greatest gift you can give your team is to communicate clear, unambiguous, expectations, and perhaps rethink some of the more archaic practices which may be spreading more stress than festive cheer. While there is no doubt that client needs are important, there are ways to manage these successfully while also protecting the wellbeing or your team and their families.

Where there may not be sufficient cover to meet client demands, rather than asking the entire team to monitor emails when they should be bonding with their family or relaxing over the festive period, why not organise a rota and be very clear about expectations of each team member. This was used to great effect in various experiments conducted by Harvard Business School Professor, Leslie Perlow and her team, when running research with the Boston Consulting Group. Team members would be given clear instructions as to when they could have uninterrupted time off, without the need to check emails. This had the net effect of reducing stress and exhaustion, while simultaneously increasing the enjoyment and engagement of team members.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of implementing such new ways of working, is the need to reappraise the historic assumption that to be effective employees must ‘be available 24/7’. my favourite quote from a 2009 Harvard Business Review article authored by Professor Perlow is: ‘we found that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. Our experiments with time off resulted in more open dialogue among team members, which is valuable in itself. But the improved communication also sparked new processes that enhanced the teams’ ability to work most efficiently and effectively.’

Research participants also recognised the importance of senior managers speaking candidly about their commitments outside of work. One participant noted: “It was helpful to know that the reason the partner missed a meeting was that he was taking his daughter on a college tour. That helped me see that these issues are important to him.” The more senior managers can demonstrate that they have other important commitments outside of work, the more likely junior employees will feel able to find a healthy balance for themselves.

Being clear and unambiguous with explicit expectations is crucial, but so too is addressing implicit expectations which are often communicated via subtle behaviours such as sending emails out of hours (including on weekends). I love that Outlook now provides the option to ‘delay send’ an email, with the software even prompting the user to do so if they attempt to send an email outside the usual 9-5.

I think most of us can resonate with the idea that email has become a lazy way of communicating – we often send emails instead of picking up the phone or cc people without necessarily thinking about who actually needs to be copied in on an email. However, it can also create significant additional stress. I often hear of people receiving hundreds of emails each day. Taking just a few days off can leave someone with a bulging email inbox which can take days to get back on top of. Perhaps this festive season could be an opportunity to revaluate how and when you (and your team) send emails? Could an email wait until after the holidays? Is email the best format (could you set up a collaborative document that people can input into)? Would a meeting after the holidays be better?

And it’s perhaps worth remembering that being better at communicating clear and unambiguous expectations, isn’t just for Christmas…

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