Apr 29th, 2020

The Power of the Pause

Why Breaks, Naps and Daydreams Are So Vital Now

Expert advice from Rachael O’Meara, author of ‘Pause,’ to bring the chaos of daily work to a refreshing halt and give yourself a ‘Cease and desist’ to reduce unhealthy stress.

Editor's note: This article is part of our ongoing series about how to support wellness at work during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly a decade ago, Rachael O’Meara realized that something was no longer right with the way she worked. She was overwhelmed by stress and headed toward workplace burnout. As she described it: “My ‘think about work’ switch was permanently on, and I couldn’t find the off switch.” Like many of us who have loaded ourselves up with too much work for too long, she felt lost and could no longer enjoy herself when she was out with friends. Instead, she couldn’t stop thinking about her massive and never-ending to-do list, or the next email that she needed to send for work. 

For many of us, the impulse is to lean in and tough it out, but what we may really need to do is take a step back, to gain some perspective.

After her manager suggested that she was not a fit for her role, as a result of performance issues from burnout, O’Meara decided to take a three-month leave of absence — or a pause, as she came to call it. During that time, she was inspired to start work on her first leadership book: Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break, published in 2017.  

In Pause, and in her many talks on the subject since then, O’Meara addresses our collective need to make “intentional shifts in behavior” when life throws us for a loop. This includes when we are too stressed-out by our workplace culture, when we are torn between choosing family and working to the brink of burnout, or when our motivation and productivity start to take a nosedive. For many of us, the impulse is to lean in and tough it out, but what we may really need to do is take a step back, to gain some perspective.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is now defined as “an occupational hazard,” rather than a medical condition. Last May, the WHO officially recognized this novel phenomenon as a “syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Previously, WHO had defined burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion,” but the new designation defined it for the first time as a work hazard. 

Employers now recognize that spending on measures to enhance their employees’ well-being and health, and subsequently employee happiness, can help them attract and retain talent, according to an annual survey sponsored by Fidelity Investments in 2019. The survey cites Robert Kennedy, senior vice president of Fidelity Workplace Consulting, as saying: “Well-being programs have taken on an increasingly meaningful role in employers’ business strategies.”

Why the “Power of the Pause” Is More Important Than Ever

Many of us seem to be working for most of our waking moments, and the pressure to perform well is greater than ever. Photo Credit: Nicolai Berntsen, via Unsplash.

O’Meara reminds us that burnout is almost inevitable, because we “live in an always-on society” and are expected to keep up a rapid-fire pace that never really lets up. Many of us seem to be working for most of our waking moments, and the pressure of workplace productivity is greater than ever. At this time of unprecedented anxiety, with many people working in isolation in our homes to practice safe social distancing, there’s a new need for us to nurture ourselves and embrace O’Meara’s philosophy of the “power of the pause.” 

The three core spokes of wellness in the workplace today (aka Wellness 2.0) focus on the physical, environmental and emotional aspects of a holistic approach that today’s progressive employers have rolled out in recent years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the emotional building block of the Wellness 2.0 pyramid is mission critical. 

At this time of unprecedented anxiety, with many people working in isolation in our homes to practice safe social distancing, there’s a new need for us to nurture ourselves.

According to one Gallup study, about two-thirds of full-time workers are experiencing burnout, and some organizations have declared this a crisis. Additionally, another survey just published in the United Kingdom found that 20 percent of home workers say that they have increased their alcohol consumption. A third report that they are eating less healthily, 60 percent exercise less, two-thirds report problems sleeping due to anxiety, and a third say they feel more lonely. This is a recipe for a major health disaster.  

Get Physical, Stay Connected and Take Breaks for Your Health and Well-Being

O’Meara advises that: “It can start with the little things.” Photo Credit: Avrielle-Suleiman, via Unsplash

To help address burnout and anxiety, employers have turned to virtual meetups and celebrations, digital collaboration sessions and online happy hours. At Willis Tower in Chicago and other EQ Office properties, tenant-experience apps have helped to maintain connections between friends and colleagues who work in the same location. For example, instead of their usual morning workouts in its exclusive health club, the tenants of Willis Tower have been gathering together for virtual exercise sessions in the comfort of their own homes, to kick off their mornings or to wrap up their workdays. 

“The creative ways people are finding community through digital environments from their personal spaces has been remarkable to see,” says Lisa Picard, EQ Office CEO, commenting on the response to the current COVID-19 crisis. 

“One of the discouraging things about the need for most of us to work remotely from each other is that it suddenly feels as if we’re working a lot more than before — because, essentially, work has infiltrated itself full time into our home lives,” Picard adds. “The surprising thing for me, someone who was used to working all the time before, is I am now intentionally blocking off time on my calendar to take regular mental breaks, like getting outside on my own for bike rides.” 

During our current work isolation, virtual empathy and pauses are much needed

In the unprecedented circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak around the globe, many of us are at risk due to a “social recession,” as a result of mandatory orders to isolate ourselves at home. Health experts warn of the risk associated with the crisis, tied to a “loneliness epidemic,” as described by Vox, which can contribute to mental health disorders and other negative impacts on our health. 

Finding a Safe Space for Ourselves

During a recent interview with PlaceLab, O’Meara talked about why “The Power of the Pause” has become even more vital to our emotional well-being and coping strategies during the emotionally draining quarantine of 2020: 

“What we all really need right now is safe space to express ourselves,” said O’Meara. “Creating that space for yourself is important. When we give ourselves permission to be in that more relaxed space — whether we’re napping or just going for a walk, our brains are neurologically primed for possibilities. They’re open. We’re in this visionary space. Our creative juices are more engaged, and that allows us to have insights we might not otherwise have or thoughts that could be leading to a new action or whatever you might be needing. This is in contrast to the task mode.” 

“Whether it’s stress you feel — or anxiety or anger — it’s not going anywhere unless we express it,” advised O’Meara. “Instead, we’re bottling it up inside, and then maybe reverting back to our old habits or numbing out on Netflix, or whatever it is. Creating that space is really important now, however you do it. It might be journaling, or it could be team meetings where you prompt your colleagues with questions like ‘How are you taking care of yourself right now?’ and allowing people the space to share.” 

Create a Virtual Water Cooler 

O’Meara’s team has decided to create a daily hangout designed to stand in for a classic watercooler session. There’s no set agenda. Anyone who wants to connect with colleagues in the hangout can join, and the topics tend to focus on sharing the everyday human interactions that most of us are missing at work today. It could be as simple as discussing the events of their weekend or what they’ve had for lunch. “It’s important to create opportunities to connect, during this time when we’re all feeling pretty stressed and uncertain,” said O’Meara. “It really helps to keep us in a calmer state and feeling like we have more control over stuff.” 

Step Away From the To-Do List

O’Meara advises carving out creative space for yourself during work, by giving yourself permission to take breaks from a total task orientation and running through your to-do list.

“Whether we’re napping, daydreaming or just going for a walk, our brains are neurologically primed for possibilities during our visionary vs. task-driven states,” she said. “Our creative juices are more engaged, and this allows us to have insights we may not otherwise have. As human beings, we’re wired to create, and this is something that really feeds our deeper hunger to feel alive and to create and to matter. This is why pausing is so important.” 

Take a Break From the Screen

O’Meara, an advocate of digital detoxing, says we’re all “drowning ourselves in screen fatigue,” because we’re tethered to our digital devices and screens, our lifelines to the outside world. Now that we spend so much time watching media coverage of the pandemic, with daily headlines that are so negative and horrific, it is essential to inject some positivity into our daily lives, she says. “When we’re able to do this, we feel calmer and our bodies feel more relaxed. We take deeper breaths. A wash of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone, drives this feeling.” 

Today, it’s vitally important that we all embrace “The Power of the Pause” in our daily lives. 

If we don’t manage our chronic stress mindfully, we put at risk our careers, health and well-being. With the decreased professional effectiveness and increased mental disorders that result from the lack of the “pause,” both employers and employees need to take a much-needed time out. If there was ever a time to nurture your emotional spirit, cut yourself some slack, and issue a personal “cease and desist” order to reduce unhealthy stress, it’s during this global pandemic. 

For more advice from O’Meara, you can tune into her latest Pausecast episodes, available on her website, www.rachaelomeara.com, or consider signing up for one of her virtual courses.