Staying creative in tough economic times

As a business leader, protecting your own mental health isn’t just a luxury, it’s a critical part of surviving economic headwinds.

In the short, dark winter days of January which seem to last for ever, it can be hard to keep your mood positive. This year, in particular, with a cost of living and energy crisis coming as one to impact our lives — and our businesses — it seems a big challenge. And yet, it’s a challenge we have to rise to. And not just for ourselves.

Increasingly, people in marketing roles in businesses hold both internal and external storytelling. That was one clear and consistent message from our research for the Next Level CMO book: the best CMOs are the ones who are the corporate storytellers for both the customers and the staff. HR creates the frame, but marketing gives it meaning.

If you’re to help the whole company keep moving forwards positively in challenging times, you need to find that same positivity within yourself first. You can’t fake it — people are excellent at spotting forced upbeat behaviour from those around them.

You’ve got to make it a reality in your life.

The challenge: mental health

A literature review carried out in 2016 emphasises that recessions are not great times for people’s mental health:

The evidence was consistent that economic recessions and mediators such as unemployment, income decline, and unmanageable debts are significantly associated with poor mental wellbeing, increased rates of common mental disorders, substance-related disorders, and suicidal behaviours.

While we hope to avoid unemployment, and hopefully haven’t stacked up unmanageable debts, at the very least a decline in the standard of living is on the horizon for many of us, as wage growth fails to match inflation. It doesn’t feel great to be getting (relatively) poorer.

The answers: protecting creativity and reducing stress

You may have made some New Year’s resolutions. If so, there’s a fair chance that they’re slipping already. Most are gone by January 19th. It’s far better to spend some time thinking about how to structure your life in the coming months in a way that boosts your health, bolsters your productivity and protects your mental state of mind.

Here are three things you can do to make yourself a more effective leader in this period of endless crises.

1. Protect downtime

There’s a horribly seductive voice that starts whispering in your brain during difficult times. “You need to work harder,” it croons, “because everything will fall apart otherwise.”

That voice needs resisting. While downturns do present opportunities for agile businesses – something we’ll return to in a separate feature – you don’t have to work every hour to take advantage of them. In fact, we know (even if Elon Musk doesn’t seem to) that long hours have an adverse effect on productivity, not a positive one:

Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future.

You’re going to need that creativity in difficult times, so just pushing yourself harder to perform will make this worse rather than better.

Go on, brew yourself a hot drink, and spend half an hour in the best chair in the house or office with a good book. It’s an investment in your own creativity.

2. Reframe success

Thinking different about what success looks like can be critical to surviving a downturn in a business, but you can also practice it in your own life. If money is tight or, at least, not stretching as far as it once did, how can you reframe what success looks like in your life?

Improved fitness? More time with family and friends? More time in nature? We know that the last one is hugely correlated with good mental health. As little as 10 minutes outdoors in a natural environment can have a positive impact on reducing stress.

If ever-increasing financial rewards are off the table, for a while at least, where else can you find meaning and value in your life — and in your work? If you can answer that question for yourself, you’re in a good position to help answer that for the company as a whole.

3. Avoid social fragmentation

Some risks for poor mental health during a downturn in the economy lie in social fragmentation. Increasing social isolation is probably a bigger risk than it’s ever been. Few companies are back to full-time in-office working. People trade the casual social interactions of the office for those of local cafés and coffee shops. But, as purse strings tighten, those sorts of low-level treats become less affordable — and hospitality businesses start closing. Office workers run the risk of spending much of the day talking to nobody but themselves and the family.

And that includes you.

Finding ways to bring together your teams can be a low-cost way of avoiding social fragmentation, and re-energising the whole team, yourself included.

For example, video calls can become a source of dread, if you’re not careful. They’re all about decision and performance and accountability. So, mix it up a little. Set up at least some calls that have less of a focus on performance, and more on connection, as Neal Stanton wrote for Forbes:

As leaders, we need to get creative. Try scheduling “random” meetings for your employees to connect. These are designed to remotely replicate the serendipitous encounters they might have in the office. Organize video calls between colleagues from different departments to mix things up. One of the best ways we’ve seen this achieved is through monthly lunch meetings, where a rotating roster of managers from different departments join small teams for an informal virtual get-together.

These might not be precisely the right solutions for you, or your team. But now is the time to experiment and find out. Even just allowing people to hang around on a call once their managers have left opens the scope for the sort of personal connection that hybrid working can lack.

Good mental health, productive team

That little, siren voice in your head might be whispering again now: “This is self-indulgent. Why should we be thinking about walks in the woods and company hangouts in a downturn? Other companies are cutting back! Surely, we must strive our way through this downturn, and then we can relax?”

Still that voice with this:

  • Research shows that downtime and personal connections are critical to business creativity
  • The Protestant work ethic makes sense in an age when you had to stop working when you left the office – or the sun went down, but doesn’t make sense in an always-on age
  • Creative, brave companies thrive in a downturn, not stressed, tired ones. And that starts with the leaders of the company.

Photo by Nicola Fioravanti on Unsplash