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Brake or Break?

A new pace for business in the new year

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Even if you’re not a huge fan of Formula One racing, it’s easy to get caught up in the thrill and excitement of watching the skillful Lewis Hamilton, now heading the list of the greatest F1 drivers of all time.   Yet, any of one of these F1 heroes will tell you that it is not difficult to simply drive fast. The real skill is in the timing of using the brake—knowing precisely when to slow down and when to accelerate.
 
In business, we have certainly mastered the accelerator pedal. Indeed, we’ve had a proverbial foot planted firmly on it for the past few decades. It’s not that we’re less skillful with the brake—I believe we’ve forgotten it even exists.
 
Having worked in large global businesses for more than 25 years, I recall days packed with conference calls, meetings and plenty of travel. The nine to five had become more of a five to nine for many people. Working through lunch or responding to e-mail at the weekends was seen as evidence of commitment and loyalty—actions to be admired or copied.
 
As many regular Bullogers (readers of my monthly blog, The Bullog) will remember, by forgetting to apply the brake, I found myself having a breakdown and spent almost a week in a Glasgow psychiatric hospital just over 6 years ago. To my surprise at the time, I wasn’t the only business professional in residence. That episode was the catalyst for writing my book which seeks to shift the debate from a singular focus on the mental health of individuals, to looking at the mental health of the system in which we are operating. Breakdown, burnout and disengagement are perfectly normal human responses to a corporate system whose pace and expectation has escalated, as a result of digital technologies, so that it is now unsustainable.
For a while, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to offer one ray of comfort in its bleak onslaught on our economies and societies—an opportunity to step off the hamster wheel and slow down. No longer would we be judged by the number of hours spent conspicuously at our desks under the watchful eye of our bosses and peers. Instead, our contribution would be calculated solely on the outputs and results we achieved. 
 
During the first lockdown, I recall the feeling of having the luxury of time—no international travel, social restrictions and the absence of the daily commute meant I suddenly felt free to think and be in a way that I could barely remember. Unfortunately, for many, these time savings did not translate into more downtime or the opportunity for more breaks. They were used to add even more hours to the working day. LinkedIn noted in May 2020 that the working day had increased by 15 percent, with people beginning their day 45 minutes earlier and ending their working day 40 minutes later than usual. It’s a fast track to more burn out.
 
The second lockdown offered a second chance for us all. As a “knowledge worker” myself, I can work remotely and have managed to carve out a different cadence to my daily routine. I now include yoga, meditation and a lengthy walk into my day and give myself a deadline for shutting down the computer. Of course, I catch myself drifting back into bad habits, but so far the legacy of the second lockdown is more beneficial than the first.
I believe we need to fundamentally rethink what we do as business professionals and why we do it. It’s why I set up a business “decelerator” on The Isle of Bute where I grew up. It’s a direct and deliberate challenge to our current corporate culture which appears obsessed with a “bigger-must-be-better” mindset. If businesses are going to be a force for good in the world, then we need to create the headspace for people to help them do so. A collective new year resolution could be for us to be quicker at slowing down. After all, a gentle press on the brake pedal might give us a chance to break the system rather than ourselves.
 
(N.B. This blog will appear as an Op-ed in The Scotsman on Saturday 9th January)
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