Executive leaders are more exhausted than ever – and hybrid work could be the culprit
Now Reading
Executive leaders are more exhausted than ever – and hybrid work could be the culprit

Executive leaders are more exhausted than ever – and hybrid work could be the culprit

According to data from insurance provider Bupa Global, 96 per cent of executives in the UAE experience significant levels of mental distress

Gulf Business

Corporate leaders are stretched and stressed as never before. According to data from insurance provider Bupa Global, 96 per cent of executives in the UAE experience significant levels of mental distress, and one in five report distressing signs of burnout. Their hope: hybrid work arrangements will reduce both their workload and stress levels. Such hopes, however, may be misplaced. All too often hybrid work is the culprit, not the cure.

Hybrid work is a double-edged sword

We must face the harsh reality. As hybrid work models have become the most dominant form of employment, it’s become obvious that they are a double-edged sword. Yes, hybrid work can lead to more flexibility and self-determination, but it can also “lead to new forms of (self-)exploitation,” warns Erin Kelly, Professor of Work and Organization at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “That happens, when flexibility is merely a shorthand for being available around the clock, for being constantly on demand.”

From digital overload to exhaustion

Yet, being constantly on demand is the new normal for too many leaders in the hybrid workplace: a brief chat message here, a quick ping there, a subordinate is calling to request urgent advice. And all while heading into the next virtual meeting. This is the executive grind I have witnessed as a productivity expert over the last three years. Hybrid work arrangements significantly add to the digital overload executives face on a daily. Not least because leaders are tasked with managing more fluid and more complex team constellations which increase their load in coordinating and structuring work. Is it then really a wonder that such arrangements are a major contributor to executive exhaustion?

It doesn’t have to be that way

However, there is a silver lining: Hybrid work is what we make of it. Corporations and executive leaders can shape the rules of the game. To do so effectively, they need to follow three fundamental rules:

Rule 1: Manage attention instead of time

Attention is the new currency. Leaders need to primarily manage attention, not time, in the hybrid workplace. Doing more in less time simply doesn’t cut it anymore. Instead, executive productivity and success are primarily determined by how effectively leaders can focus their attention on deep work. According to Cal Newport, an expert on technology and culture who popularised the term, deep work encompasses “activities that happen at the upper boundary of your cognitive abilities” and thus need to be “performed in a state of distraction-free concentration.”

While deep work has grown increasingly important to generate value in the information economy, leaders’ abilities to perform such work is decreasing in an ever-expanding sea of digital noise. By now, we are losing 28 per cent of our working time to distractions, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit. To protect their attention and their well-being, executives need to ruthlessly cut through the noise.

Rule 2: Keep your frenemies at bay

Digital collaboration and communication tools such as Zoom, Slack and instant messengers such as Microsoft Teams are simultaneously our workplace friends and enemies. On the one hand, they allow teams and units to work remotely and asynchronously. On the other, they are by far the biggest distraction to leaders’ workdays. Being constantly reachable is like being a barista who spends all day taking orders, rather than preparing actual coffee. Taking orders is only a means to an end. The same holds true for Zoom, Teams and Slack. Leaders need to limit the time they are available across digital channels. They need to follow the barista principle: Limit your orders to make premium coffee.

Rule 3: Negotiate availability and reaction times

Mark T Fliegauf

Constant availability and instant replies can quickly become the unspoken norms in teams and organisations. Executives and employees can feel that they must be constantly present and visible on communication channels, notes Kelly.

To avoid a vicious cycle of digital overload, leaders need to negotiate collaboration and response times with their teams and ask the uncomfortable question: “Why does it not feel safe to keep the instant messenger on red?” Executives are neither shirking their work nor responsibilities by setting digital limits. Instead, they’re allowing themselves and their employees to make space for what matters.

Implementing these three rules is not an easy process. It is both time-consuming and involves several iterations. But leaders who chose to ignore the effects of hybrid work on wellbeing do so at their peril. Let’s get hybrid work on a healthier footing – for executives, their employees, and their companies.

The writer is the executive director at Think Productive (West & South Asia) and a practitioner fellow in Hybrid Work at the Berlin Social Science Center

Read: Interview: Benedetta Ghione, executive director, Art Dubai 

You might also like


Scroll To Top