Webinar highlights: Tough Cookie
Beyond endurance: building resilience in a burnout pandemic
In January’s edition of the Help to Grow: Management Alumni Network monthly webinar series, Tough Cookie founder Michael Matania unpacked the psychology behind our unmet needs in the workplace and offered new ways of building a healthy resilience to burnout.
Matania has extensive experience working with mental health having previously designed and delivered various frontline programmes across the country specialising in prevention and mental resilience.
During the webinar, Matania revisited his own personal experiences and challenges growing up on an estate in southeast London to detail the formative years of cognitive development:
‘Our first challenge as human beings is that we have an incredibly powerful mind but no user manual on how to manage and care for it.
‘The second challenge is that our political, economic, and cultural organisations have forgotten that human beings are tribal primates with fundamental social and emotional needs.
‘Our social needs stem from our Limbic Cortex, the primal, mammalian brain region, and the seat of our emotional lives. This structure includes the Amygdala, a sentinel that scans the environment, with one question in mind: “Am I connected? Am I safe?”.
‘For most of human history, we have inhabited a context of rural tranquillity and tribal connectedness. Until a few hundred years ago, the majority of the globe was still inhabited by foragers.
‘Religion, colonialism, industrialisation, and other social, political and economic forces have seen the tribe replaced by the nuclear household as the dominant form of childhood socialisation in Western Society. This usually involves one or two adults trying their level best to meet the myriad social, emotional, and physical needs of their children, with inadequate community support.
‘Inadequate support leads many parents to become overburdened, overwhelmed, and unable to meet all the needs of their children. These unmet needs form mental “wounds”, and these manifest as psychological over-compensations like:
- Over-independence (unable to ask for help)
- Over-competitiveness (compulsion to dominate)
- Over-achieving (compulsive action driven by fear)
- Over-giving (over-burdened by poor boundaries)
‘The child attends schooling, where most adults entrusted to care for them are not trained to spot over-compensations or support the developing child to heal the wound(s) and return to a state of balance. In the absence of this insight, support and healing, the child spends their schooling years perfecting their over-compensations.
The impact of Legacy Corporate Culture
‘They then join the adult workforce, where most modern organisations are dominated by a “Norm System”, a relatively simple system of social punishment and reward, we inherited from the second industrial revolution we call “Legacy Corporate Culture”. Rather than support its people to find balance, Legacy Corporate Culture will incentivise and reward unhealthy psychological over-compensations in the pursuit of its organisational objectives.
‘The impact of Legacy Corporate Culture on its staff was hugely exacerbated in 2007 by the smartphone, which led to unprecedented disruption in the information sector. Mass adoption of and addiction to smartphones has meant work can follow us home, leaving the average adult spending 12 hours a day on screens. This level of screen usage is leading many to a state of hyperstimulation –becoming overwhelmed by the speed and volume of the information being absorbed.
‘Now add a global pandemic into the mix. The pandemic eroded the buffers across the primary areas of our lives (family/primary relationship, friends, health, and work), the aftershocks of which are still being felt, particularly by those in marginalised groups who are over-exposed to shocks. The Pandemic revealed to organisations the fragility of systems that don’t balance efficiency with resilience.
‘How do people cope in this situation? If you find yourself feeling stressed, confused, bewildered, alienated of overwhelmed, please know that there is nothing “wrong” with you. These feelings are the normal, healthy response of anyone trying to survive in an environment that doesn’t meet their social and emotional needs. This is not anyone's “fault”, no one is to blame, it is simply where we are as a society.
Endurance vs resilience
‘However, because we have not been taught best practise in coping with the stress and difficult emotions inherent to our predicament, we often resort to sedating them through carbohydrates (mainly flour and sugar) screens, alcohol, over-working, or over-exercising. These behaviours are a hallmark of what we call “Endurance Mode”.
Matania explains that Endurance Mode in the workplace is hallmarked by two characteristics, reactivity and firefighting. This differs from resilience which instead focuses on creating clear boundaries that allow for consistency and renewal. Two examples of ‘smart work’ to prevent burnout that Matania gives are setting restrictions on back-to-back meetings and having one/two 90-minute ‘Deep Work Blocks’ per day where you are unavailable for calls or meetings.
‘Endurance Mode is unsustainable from a neurophysiological perspective, and on a long-enough timescale it will eventually lead to Burnout. Burnout can manifest in severe and life-altering forms, including chronic fatigue and autoimmune disease. However, early symptoms involve feelings of physical/emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced performance.
‘Most managers struggle to catch the “early warning signs” in their team because Legacy Corporate Culture also encourages individuals to engage in “impression management” i.e., they wear a professional mask and pretend they are not struggling, for fear of social stigma and the impact of this on their professional development. This creates a dynamic where an entire team may be collectively struggling, but each member will believe they are the only one, thereby blocking effective team sensemaking and problem solving.’
Selfcare goes beyond the workplace, prioritising oneself or employees must also extend through to homelife. Some of the ways in which we can do this are by encouraging screen-free zones in our bedrooms to prevent over stimulation and disrupted sleep, and regularly exercising to promote a healthier body and mind.
Matania insists that it is not good enough to simply acknowledge the problem, we also need to work towards creating a healthier version of ourselves. This in turn will lead to a more fulfilling work/life cycle and greater levels of productivity.
To learn more about Tough Cookie, click here.