Leaders are on the brink, trying to deal with more COVID waves,
more shortages, and hearing 'no.' Our look at the growing mental overload—and the best steps to tackle it.
By Arianne Cohen | Design by Hayley Kennell
Just when they thought the
day-to-day workplace mishaps might end, leaders face more
than ever before.
WHY IT MATTERS
When the brain is overloaded
by details, leadership and strategizing deteriorate.
Buckle your seat belt.
And hire a “chaos manager”
to smooth out crises.
That one phone call turned into a saga. She spent weeks collecting referrals from other CFOs (requiring dozens of online posts and emails), screened candidates’ competence and availability (dozens more calls and emails), and ultimately chose one (more calls and emails to nail down the scope of work), only to face further project delays due that firm’s staffing difficulties (even more calls and emails). Total extra time: eight weeks. “They did a great job,” she says. “It was just, you know, time.”
Yes, time. On average, managers in the EU had to work two hours more per week in the second quarter of 2021 alone in order to deal with “inefficiencies coming from everywhere,” says Belgian clinical psychologist Elke Van Hoof, who serves as an expert on workplace burnout for the European Parliament. Executives like Nash are working much more. Starting at 7:30 a.m., she sits for back-to-back calls and Zooms, looking up from her screen at around 1 to realize that she hasn’t yet eaten anything. Around 5 or 6, she wraps up. At 8 or 9 she returns to her computer and works until midnight. Before the pandemic, she says, she handled issues that now clog her inbox during one-minute chats in the break room or walk-and-talks en route to Starbucks. “That’s gone away because we’re all at home,” she says. “That has a huge impact.”
At first blush, her overload looks like a “too much to do and not enough hours” problem. But Nash is articulating a more nuanced quandary: she’s constantly restarting, redoing, monitoring, and communicating about dozens of never-quite-completed tasks over weeks or months. Her hiring cycle has doubled, from six to eight weeks to three to four months. She spends hours daily on to-dos that didn’t previously exist, all in addition to her typical job responsibilities.
During the first two years of the pandemic, and especially as each new wave hit, it was considered inappropriate to discuss the expanding raft of inefficiencies facing managers and executives. But vaccines have started to ease us out of some (although not all) of the direct effects of the pandemic, ushering in a new era of gross inefficiencies. Some are mild annoyances, but others are serious business impediments, like labor shortages and products lingering on a ship outside a port. What these inefficiencies have in common is that they’re all beyond our control—they’re large issues like global supply-chain shortages, hiring markets, and pandemic safety. And they require extra effort, even as we’re quickly generating ad hoc solutions to other problems. Leaders are now stand-ins for systems that have broken down, and that’s a scenario for which there is no training course.
The endless workplace hassles, irritations, and annoyances pile up, now compounded by Omicron so suddenly extending our health concerns as the year started. “Leaders are on the brink,” says organizational psychologist Cathleen Swody, a partner and the director of assessment at Thrive Leadership. She says that managers frequently go into fight-or-flight mode, which melds poorly with their innate instinct to do something. They feel compelled to act, and are likely to make rash decisions or—in a need to feel in control—upend things for other departments or people downstream. “This is not a recipe for strong, rational decision-making,” she says.
People working in these conditions are not kind to themselves, let alone to their staffers. “The worst comes out of people when they’re under this type of stress,” says Swody. All of which has sent C-suite heads, human resources managers, and team leaders on a mission centering on one question: How can anyone successfully lead through this?
Shannon Nash thought that hiring a financial auditor would be a breeze. As the CFO at Reputation, a platform that collects brand feedback, her duties include annual budgeting and dealing with auditors for run-of-the-mill accounting projects. But during the pandemic, she offered a project to a longtime contact and received a surprising reply: he apologetically told her that she’d need to take her business elsewhere. His firm, like everyone else’s, had been hit by staffing shortages. “This never would have happened before COVID,” she says.
“When you’re stuck
in those types of microdetails that you previously didn’t have to worry about, it’s like depleting the battery in your brain.”
Annoyances have always existed. Remember fax machines? Dial-up internet? Airplanes without Wi-Fi or power outlets? Market slumps, natural disasters, and political conflicts have periodically stymied organizations. But these have typically been limited, localized, and short-term issues. The Hassle Lifestyle, on the other hand, is everywhere, a devil spawn of the Efficiency Lifestyle that tech companies have primed us to expect: calendar alerts direct our appointments; delivery apps send our groceries to our doorstep; Alexa and Google Home turn off the lights at night and wake us up in the morning. Toss in an administrative assistant, and isn’t executive life supposed to be kind of frictionless?
Not in 2022. If lined up bow to stern, the container ships floating outside the Port of Los Angeles would stretch over 20 miles. Resource scarcity reigns. “You just feel it everywhere,” says Van Hoof, who senses this scarcity both on work floors and in C-suites.
All these extra calls and meetings and strategies about resources jam up the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for complex cognitive functioning. Imagine a museum help desk that’s staffed by one attendant. Most days, the attendant fields a steady flow of questions. But if hundreds of very inquisitive visitors suddenly bombard the desk, the attendant’s capacity to answer questions would be overwhelmed. At a certain point, the attendant would start to go a little batty, and make mistakes. That’s cognitive overload.
The brain consumes around 20 percent of our daily calorie intake, and all those emails and “remember to do ___!” notes burn metabolic energy. “When you’re stuck in those types of microdetails that you previously didn’t have to worry about, it’s like depleting the battery in your brain,” says neuroscientist Paul Zak, professor of economic sciences at Claremont Graduate University. “While you’re monitoring, the mental space you have to strategize and ideate and formulate 2022 plans is being reduced by all these annoyances.”
“I still ask, ‘Why was it set up like this? Why are we doing it this way?’ And I don’t know. That has been painful.”
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Imagine a manager’s teammates for a moment. While he’s charging around, running his department hand to mouth, his employees will likely hesitate to approach him with day-to-day questions. He might respond to a staffer’s query with irritation: Why the heck didn’t she ask that question last week? The staffer, who herself is ornery from waiting four days for the internet guy to show up, disengages. Over time, the team’s psychological health plummets, says Van Hoof, which correlates with poor productivity and dysfunctional team dynamics. It’s a domino effect.
Uncertainty is another tax on the brain—and according to Zak, the neuroscientist, a particularly steep one. Uncertainty is processed through the same neural pathways as stress, which narrows your focus to the here and now so that you’re unable to see the bigger picture. Nash says that much of her uncertainty has come not from hiring woes but from lost institutional knowledge, especially when employees leave small departments. One departing colleague created videos of herself doing her job to facilitate a smooth handoff. “Even with the videos, I still ask, ‘Why was it set up like this? Why are we doing it this way?’ And I don’t know. That has been painful.”
In real life, this looks like extreme busyness. Tom Wrobleski, Korn Ferry’s global account leader for the Consumer Industry practice and a coleader of its Supply Chain Talent Optimization practice, has been encouraging his clients to focus on strategic issues like talent, reskilling, and upskilling, which most have put on the back burner. “They say, ‘Tom, I don’t have the bandwidth because I’ve got my hand in front of my nose right now trying to get product to the customer. I can’t get out in front of this because I can’t find trucks, and I can’t find workers—all these competitors are hiring them from underneath me.’”
The brain battery does not care where or how bandwidth is consumed. Finding a living-room couch that’s in stock takes just as much mental effort as finding an office refrigerator does. But the home front is laden with a litany of inefficiencies these days, with monthslong waits for everything from floorboards to therapists. “It’s difficult to come up with a part of my day that hasn’t been disrupted,” says Quimby Melton, cofounder and CEO of Confection.io, a data generator. During preschool closures, he rented an office near his home. For the first time since college, he no longer hits the gym every day—instead, he’s rigged some exercise equipment in the corner of his office. Like Nash, he logs endless hours online with his team, investors, and vendors. Due to hiring constraints, their footprint is far-flung, so in-person relief is not on the horizon. But investors prefer in-house teams, he says. “On some level, for us to be an investable, viable business, we have to build some kind of in-person team.” You see the rub.
“Get someone who can actually help leaders. Don’t just assume they’ll figure it out.”
Twice a week, Melton’s morning includes swab testing his five-year-old son for COVID-19, scanning a QR code, and logging the results on the preschool’s website. Navigating the school’s pandemic-era drop-off line takes 15 more minutes. His two sons also require specialty medical services—a hellscape for working parents in the best of circumstances, and a game of roulette with his children’s health amid the recent healthcare strikes and staff shortages in San Francisco. “My wife runs herself ragged trying to schedule it. It’s easily the biggest disruption in my life,” he says. Which is to say that his battery is depleted day and night. After eating dinner and putting his kids to bed, he returns to the office for three to four more hours of work. “That’s not really something I did before the pandemic. It’s so busy that I just cram in a couple things before going to bed.”
These demands are often communicated directly from the top, creating a pressure cooker. “The CEO has a direct line to the chief supply-chain officer, saying, ‘How’s it going today? What are our numbers looking like? How are we comparing?’” says Wrobleski.
Surviving that lifestyle, for most, means saying goodbye to a grounded physical state. “When we move through our day in a fight-or-flight response, we are driven by emotions and may not consider the more rational side of our brain,” says psychologist Brooke Wachtler, president of the professional-development consultancy company BEW Consulting & Training.
Surprisingly, CEOs are spared the worst of this, to some degree, because—as the saying goes—problems roll downhill. Work pressure is distributed unevenly, tightening around the necks of only certain executives. For example, CEOs around the globe are telling their heads of HR and supply chain to get bodies back in office chairs and products on store shelves—figure it out. Zak says that this can be particularly stressful when responsibilities are dumped on people who lack experience designing the necessary solutions.
Few organizations are handling this well. With no quick fixes, most are left with no choice but to expect their staff to absorb the multiplying inefficiencies. All too often, managers feel helpless, with little to offer their employees but “let me know what you come up with.” Or: “I’m here if you need anything else. You’ll figure it out.”
Since managing the barrage of inconveniences is a job in itself, Van Hoof has an astute suggestion: make it a job in itself. She encourages overtaxed leaders to hire a dedicated person tasked with controlling and smoothing out currently chaotic processes. For example, a so-called chaos manager might monitor a much-delayed product shipment to stores, including the 35 phone calls required for that process; she might also develop a new workflow for quick issues, so that they don’t clog email inboxes. “It’s actually a great relief for managers to be protected from toxic stress and burnout,” Van Hoof says.
What kind of person makes a winning chaos manager? Van Hoof says she’s probably already in your organization. You’re looking for someone who thrives on chaos. Though HR screenings will identify good candidates, Van Hoof suggests just using your eyeballs. “Just observe people in the cafeteria. You will see the employees who are very resilient and flourishing, and more productive now than they were in 2019.” That’s your chaos manager.
In addition to a chaos manager, Van Hoof suggests engaging a chief well-being officer. This role, common in Europe, helps C-suites identify struggling employee demographics. For instance, Van Hoof says managers with young kids are particularly overstretched right now, and need more focused monitoring and support than they did before the pandemic. Zak, the neuroscientist, advises firms to hire executive coaches or specialists (such as a trainer with a multidisciplinary background in neuroscience, psychology, and leadership) to teach leadership amid inefficiencies. “Get someone who can actually help leaders,” he says. “Don’t just assume they’ll figure it out.”
As for you, toiling away at home (or wherever you work these days), Zak says to think of your brain as a rechargeable battery. It has a four-hour life, which means it simply cannot run for eight or 10 hours. This means that every four hours or so, you need to close the door and take a break from calls and emails. “Allow your battery to recharge and get back some bandwidth,” he says. He encourages leaders to model the practice. “We’re herd creatures who follow what our leaders do.”
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Your perfect chaos manager
Some experts say firms should create this position today. A top-notch candidate is likely already on your staff in an organizational role, perhaps as a project manager or importer-exporter.
Quick-thinking supply-chain person who took a year off to meditate with monks
and the ability to create new systems as needed
Thrives on chaos
Familiarity with the
functioning, and workflows
Extroverted, highly socially skilled, and minimally neurotic
The accountant no one’s ever seen outside his cubicle
An array of dynamics, from supply shortages to pandemic news to remote work, has led to a complex and stressful life for many of us. We took an unofficial survey asking leaders to cite some of the annoyances they’ve experienced.
In-person conference switching
6 to 9 of
conference on Zoom
of fancy new
Employee resigning without
Employee leaving with scorched-earth email to team
Refrigerator fails; repair part
Kids home yet again
Kids still home days later, despite testing negative for COVID
too long after a 2:30 a.m. work night