Leadership fatigue has hit Bay of Plenty bosses battling with the uncertainties of Omicron, staff shortages, wage hikes, and more. Many are running on fumes. As part of NZME's Great Minds mental health editorial project, Zoe Hunter speaks to Bay leaders and experts about fatigue, what the warning signs are and how to overcome stress before the burnout boils over.
Work pressures in the age of Omicron have left many bosses with "nothing left in the tank", an expert says.
Bay of Plenty business leaders told NZME that grappling with Covid-19 restrictions, supply chain issues, inflation and the labour shortage were contributing to increased leadership fatigue across all sectors.
Positive Pathways communication and mindset coach Gail Page said many people felt overwhelmed by alert level changes, lockdowns, and staffing issues.
One long-time business owner was in crisis, she said.
"He said: 'I am so glad you answered the phone because if you didn't my wife would probably be a widow by now'.
"He felt responsible for so many people. He thought the easiest thing was just to check out.
"For somebody to get to that state... even now I get chills thinking about it."
Page said many business leaders had "nothing left in the tank".
"They are literally running on fumes."
There was a perception life would return to normal after the initial outbreak.
"But there is no end date."
Uncertainty put people into a heightened state of fight or flight, she said.
"More and more people are so tired and they don't know how to build the energy to keep going... It's totally engulfing them. It's so sad.
"I've known people to say: 'I don't even care if I go into receivership. I'm done'."
Page said having a confidential sounding board for people to share their feelings was important.
Business leaders were trying to do the best for everybody but it got to the stage where their "compassion barrel" was empty.
Thinkplus Ltd leadership coach Claire Russell said leaders had their own worries.
"There has been a sense of having to push through, be nimble, be the pillar of strength for others."
Russell said leadership fatigue was a sign of long-term chronic stress and exhaustion leaving the leader depleted.
Small-to-medium business owners were worried about financial security and, while some had bounced back, many had experienced a hard slog, she said.
Russell said leaders were battling to hire and retain experienced people and some employees were fearful of returning to the office after working from home.
"The buck stops with the leader, the responsibility can be heavy and the future unclear."
Russell said leaders were also a source of clarity, hope and solutions and could bring "the energy the team needs".
Whakatane-based counsellor Irene Begg, of Talkin Headz Counselling, said the ever-changing criteria of mandates and Covid-19 restrictions had been a big pressure.
"People have been required to work harder for longer hours, to fill some gaps, which leads to some exhausted team leaders and senior leaders in management at times."
Navigating vaccine mandates in the workplace was another tier in managing human resources that leaders had never had to manage before, she said.
"It's really stressful for people."
Tauranga Business Chamber chief executive Matt Cowley said leaders were constantly being torn in multiple directions.
Cowley said people experienced high stress and fatigue at the end of last year.
"Most people had a good break to recover, but the stresses caused by Omicron and the rising cost of running a business have drained that energy within the first few months of 2022."
Some Bay bosses, particularly in small businesses, were getting dragged into help operational matters while making management decisions after hours, he said.
Cowley said leaders needed to understand their expertise and strengths and build a team to help pick up the load in the long term.
"The burden soon impacts your personal life. Strategic opportunities can be missed because the leader is in a fight or flight survival mode.
"It is difficult to think creatively and build strategic advantages if the leader is fighting operational fires."
Rotorua Business Chamber chief executive Bryce Heard said many business leaders were suffering fatigue and stress due to Covid-related issues.
"Nothing is more difficult for business leaders than uncertainty.
"For two years we have lived from day to day awaiting the next Covid update. Just one Covid case or plan change in our region would blow our positive plans into ruins.
"We would be forced to go back to the drawing board and start again – and again."
Heard said when businesses have a reasonable degree or certainty plans could be made and measures implemented to optimise situations.
"Whether the news is good – and requires us to employ more staff, borrow money and expand our resources; or bad - and requires us to lay off staff, cut costs, and limit suppliers - we can cope.
"But when there is complete uncertainty, business is paralysed from making reasoned and informed responses."
Heard said the heavy burden of reassuring staff and their families was at the heart of the stress.
"Business has been incredibly resilient, but we are all human and it has taken a toll on health."
'Sometimes it can get too much'
Managing director of Tauranga construction company Gartshore Group, Rob Gartshore, said if not managed properly, business challenges could lead to burnout or leadership fatigue.
"As a leader, you continually feel pressure to lead by example, be positive, motivate your senior management team and staff across the board, encourage your team to be successful for the greater good of the company, continually resolve issues... and sometimes it can get too much.
"Unfortunately, if you are too late in recognising the drop in motivation, the lack of energy, a drop in confidence, the inability to make clear and concise decisions or second guessing yourself, leadership fatigue has already set in and it is a tough place to battle your way out of."
Jenkins Freshpac Systems Ltd general manager Jamie Lunam said he was proud to see his team step up in the face of diversity.
"But when the extra demands on a team move from weeks, to months to years, like we are currently experiencing, it is soul-destroying watching the fatigue set in when you have run out of levers to pull."
Lunam said going over and above and pushing hard to achieve goals could end in fatigue if not managed.
In the past two years, business leaders' time had been consumed with small but critical operational needs.
"It's exhausting standing still trying not to roll backwards. It feels like you are trying to drive a car with your arms tied behind your back and the handbrake stuck on."
Lunam said he thrived in a pressured environment but "when you are wired like I am, it is critical to know how to manage it".
"I still have moments where I want to walk away and be a greenkeeper, but recognise the triggers and know I need to step back, mow some lawns, and come back to the situation later."
Can't change it? Don't worry: 'It's wasted energy'
Hayes International Rotorua general manager Nick Looijen said staff were having to be innovative to try to meet deadlines and the additional workload was across the board.
"For me, I don't believe I am affected as hard as the leaders below me. It's being involved in the detail that is hard. Having good staff that you trust to make good decisions is key."
The company offered flexible hours or work from home options where practical, had policies for stress management and had also engaged a company that has a wellbeing app for all employees to use.
"I just make sure I have regular daily exercise, limit my weekly hours to no more than 45-50, and have always trained myself to not worry about things you cannot change or influence – it's wasted energy."
'It begins with the leader'
Mount Pack and Cool managing director Brendon Lee said the shortage of RSE workers and backpackers meant the company needed to get creative to keep running efficiently.
Lee said the extra pressures of not having enough staff and long hours, could leave people overwhelmed or exhausted.
However, it was up to the leader to inspire and encourage the workforce.
"It's my job to show up every day with energy and passion that ignites my team."
Recounting previous successes with the team and having a good laugh could de-pressurise situations, he said.
"This year we've implemented free lunches, which has been great as it's one less thing to think about in the morning, but also a great opportunity to have a casual check-in and conversation with our wider team. "
'Pollyanna' required to boost team morale
Corson Dental owner and principal dentist Jennifer Corson said the need to constantly maintain a positive attitude while adapting to changes resulting from the pandemic could be exhausting.
"A fair bit of Pollyanna is required to keep team morale up."
Corson said now the stress was around constantly rejigging workflows due to staff and patients isolating, and the admin required on top of daily workloads.
"We try to limit stress at work as much as possible by acknowledging we can only control so much.
"There is definitely a feeling that the worst has passed and we just want to get on with business as normal."
Common 2022 trend: High turnover, lower profitability
ABC Business Sales Tauranga business partner Linda Harley said Covid disruption was making it difficult for business owners to maintain focus on the profit and loss expenses and supply chain.
A common trend in the 2022 financial year was higher turnover but lower profitability as supply chain, wages, rents and other costs have increased, without operational or price adjustments being made by the fatigued owner, she said.
"Some owners fatigued by the Covid events of the last year have also seen them close for a period of time rather than be proactive to keep the doors open and trading."
'Only certainty is uncertainty'
"It seems like the only certainty recently has been uncertainty."
That's the view of Bay Office Products Depot general manager Jeff Halford on the everchanging business landscape amid the Omicron outbreak.
Halford said the company had been "extraordinarily lucky" as it served a range of industries, had a wide supply chain and was in a strong position to serve its clients.
Leadership fatigue was the weight of knowing every decision made impacts not only themselves and the business, but their team and their families, he said.
"It's recognising that leadership is a huge role and that curveballs are part of the everyday, but it's also about recognising that we are all human."
'Doubledown on wellbeing'
Zespri chief people officer Edith Sykes said its primary focus was the health and wellbeing of staff as it grappled with what is likely to be one of the most challenging seasons it had faced due to Covid-19 and the ongoing labour shortage.
Sykes said the company ensured their leaders and global teams were able to manage workloads and wellbeing.
"We encourage our leaders to talk openly about their wellbeing and communicate regularly and we have in place coaching support."
The company had also recently undertaken mental wellbeing workshops, backed by specialist programmes,
There was increased pressure on staff around the start of the season.
"So it's even more important that in these times we double down on wellbeing."
What leadership fatigue?
Te Arawa Fisheries chief executive Chris Karamea Insley said many organisations were finding themselves in a holding pattern while Covid-19 runs its course but Te Arawa Fisheries was growing.
The company increased its total revenue by more than $10 million and posted a $9.3m surplus in the past 12 months.
Insley believed the company's future-focused ka pu te ruha strategy had created an active and resilient business that was growing and diversifying its assets.
"The morale within our staff and business and shareholders is pretty upbeat. We are not suffering from leadership fatigue.
"Everything we are achieving is not just falling out of the sky and into our laps. It's all very deliberate and prescribed because we have thought about these things well in advance.
"If you're not just reacting, you're able to manage and control your future and your destiny."
NZME asked business leaders and experts how employers can work to overcome leadership fatigue and the warning signs to look out for.
Gail Page, Positive Pathways
- There are three things that we need to look at: Mindset, relationships and communication.
- It's making sure leaders can articulate what that negative voice is inside their heads and realising they can flip the negatives.
- Look at strategies. Write down everything they do. Look at the things only they can do and delegate the rest.
- Breathing techniques and going for a walk are great ways to problem solve, relax and be more centred.
Irene Begg, Talkin Headz Counselling
- Take regular breaks, schedule time off, and don't work too long hours.
- Don't over-commit because then you end up under-delivering.
- Set reasonable goals and realistic timeframes.
Thinkplus Ltd, Claire Russell
- Emotional first aid: Tune into our emotions, listen to how we are feeling
- Take the time and find the space to rest, reflect and recover and find the right support to help you do that.
- Check in against any unrealistic expectations you have on yourself, less might be more.
- Use the strengths of others to provide lateral development and let you step back.
- Tune into what fills your cup and gives you a sense of energy and positivity.
Matt Cowley, Tauranga Business Chamber
- Plan your daily, monthly, and yearly breaks, and stick to them.
- Delegating decisions and empowering other team members can be liberating for leaders.
- Reach out to someone independent who can share honest feedback and give you a helicopter view of your situation.
- Good exercise, eating and sleep are the best cures for stress.
Rob Gartshore, Gartshore Group
- Be positive and encourage staff to be positive.
- Provide clear communication and ensure adequate support mechanisms are in place for stressful situations.
- Celebrate successes ie. awards, completed projects, completed apprenticeships or promotions.
- Be flexible with work hours and encourage staff to take breaks.
- Emphasise a work/life balance.
- Provide a fun, positive working environment and social club, staff barbecues, icecream...
- Provide a structured career path, funding and guidance to advance staff careers.
- Provide annual health checks.
- Encourage staff to look out for each other.
- Actively monitor and look for early signs of burnout.
Jamie Lunam, Jenkins Freshpac Systems Ltd
- We operate a fatigue policy that aims to monitor workloads and hours of work.
- Wherever possible we provide a very flexible work environment, with several departments that choose their start and finish times and admin staff choosing where they work currently.
- Activities that make me switch off are tinkering in my workshop, gardening, lawns.
- When I go to bed, I read fiction otherwise the cogs start grinding away!
Mount Pack and Cool managing director Brendon Lee
- Get back to the basics with a good diet, good sleep, and regular exercise.
- Fresh air and time outside in the morning before heading into work is my absolute non-negotiable.
Bay Office Products Depot general manager Jeff Halford
- Keep the mood light.
- Help each other through tough times.
- Celebrate the wins – big and small.
Where to get help:
● Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
● Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
● Youth services: (06) 3555 906
● Youthline: 0800 376 633
● Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
● Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
● Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
● Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
● Helpline: 1737
● Anxiety Helpline: 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111