Managing mid-winter malaise

Kate Kearins offers six ideas on how leaders can help beat that mid-winter feeling of ‘blah’ in the workplace.

It’s hard to admit but we all know the feeling: work and the workplace can sometimes seem a bit blah. Shorter, colder, rainier winter days don’t help.

Experts have a few useful things to say about what managers might seek to do to understand and help beat the mid-year malaise.

Be curious. It’s worth trying to establish who’s feeling what and why – starting with yourself. Particularly in times of economic constraint, there may be very good reasons for managers to feel they have less autonomy and control, less potential to innovate and invest in new ideas and, as a result, fewer willing-to-engage colleagues. Workplace lassitude may also be driven by too much going on at home or in the wider family, or by friends who have booked enviable holidays in warm and exotic climes. Ask yourself: as a manager, are you hopeful – can you see a way through the blahs? Rather than critical, try being curious about the changes you’re feeling within yourself and observing among your colleagues.

Be collaborative. It can be useful to convene a small group to work with you to define the real problem/s if they are organisational ones, and to identify potential solutions. These colleagues need to be empathetic and constructive rather than negative and blameful – so choose them well. Ideally, they’ll be people who are well-connected and highly trusted within the organisation – people whom their colleagues seek out to confide in. If your organisation has engagement survey data or conducts pulse surveys, that information can be useful to understand and assess how colleagues are feeling (assuming they feel safe to report that honestly – if not, that’s a separate issue to address).

Be compassionate. The experts contend that it’s not unusual to feel mentally checked out from work from time to time– and that ongoing enervation can be contagious. That doesn’t mean managers need to rush in and try to solve people’s problems. Rather, a measured response is required – an approach that is realistic, tailored, and sustainable. Don’t take away the workplace chocolate biscuits, a colleague once reminded me, unless you replace them with something more enjoyable and valuable.

Be constructive. Once they have been defined, work on resolving some of the baseline organisational or group issues. Does the problem stem from unduly high expectations, unreasonable time pressures, or excessive workloads? Is it about perceived unfairness, or challenging personalities and conflicts within relationships? What are the big changes you might want to work towards – and what are some meaningful steps you can take sooner rather than later?

Be culture focused. Personally, I’d resist the temptation to throw in a bit of team building if that’s not already a habit in your organisation. Instead, when their schedules and workloads allow, I would offer colleagues something concrete to work on collaboratively – a valued project that can create synergy across the team and score a win for culture. That may mean reprioritising or slowing down on a few other planned activities. I’m often advised by colleagues to do the latter – a good reminder that managers can have more good ideas than colleagues have capacity to implement.

Be communicative. In good times and blah, clear communication is key. It’s often easier in good times – so be prepared to front up and take the blame if the problem is one you (inadvertently) manufactured and apologise if you are genuinely sorry. Acknowledge the tough stuff and the good work colleagues are doing. Managers who are generous in their communication highlight significant achievements as well as small wins. Be sure to also share updates on progress towards bigger goals.

In all of these approaches, a positive vision for the organisation (even if it is to morph in form) is important. Experts suggest that resilience is informed by a confidence that adversity will pass – an awareness that times might be tough right now, but a better future is around the corner. Managers must be able to see around that corner and engage the powers of curiosity, collaboration, compassion, constructivism, culture and communication to help everyone in the organisation turn it together.

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University.

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