What do you do as a leader, when a team member sends emails at 4am, and you’re concerned about their level of self-care and well-being?

In a recent session with a global executive team, this was the exact question posed to me. The leader had noticed a team member (let’s call him John), working in another time zone, sending emails at around 4am on multiple days over a three-week period. The leader was concerned about John’s well-being, but wasn’t sure how to deal with the issue in an appropriate and effective manner.

Given the world that we’re all working in right now, it’s very likely that you may be observing, or even doing, something similar. If so, the purpose of this blog is to help you navigate a pathway through the issue, such that the person feels cared for but not patronized.

The example used in this blog is “emails at 4am”, but the principles could equally apply to any issue evoking concerns about a team member’s well-being. For the sake of simplicity, let’s imagine your team member is also called John.

Are they dealing with personal challenges?

The first thing to consider is whether John is experiencing significant personal challenges, such as physical or mental health issues. Many people are struggling with hybrid working arrangements, relationship pressures, and a blurring of boundaries between work and home.

As a leader, your role here is to listen with empathy and understand if there is anything you can do to support John through any issues that’s he’s comfortable to share with you.

Are there performance issues?

If John is happy and healthy, the next thing to reflect on is whether he’s performing well, or poorly; whether he’s making good decisions or poor ones; whether he’s delivering on his commitments, or not.

You can still demonstrate care for John regardless, but if there are performance issues, then you have an obligation to address this with John very directly, given your responsibilities to your organisation.

Are you projecting your own judgments?

If John is performing well, but you are worried about him, become very curious about why he’s doing what he’s doing. You may be surprised by the answer. Just because he’s sending emails at 4am, does not necessarily mean that he’s lacking balance or about to burn-out.

John may be excited to start work at 4am, because he can then take his kids to school, or have lunch with his partner, or go to the gym in the middle of the day. Maybe he goes to bed at 9pm and is an early riser.

The remote working situation that all of us have been forced into has been a blessing for many, who have far greater flexibility over their work hours. My day looks very different to what most people would call a conventional day, because I run my own businesses and work across multiple time zones, and yet I have – what is for me – an ideal work-life balance.

Rather than project your own beliefs and judgments, just state the facts and ask some helpful questions. You might say; “I’ve noticed over the past 3 weeks that you’ve sent me 7 emails before 4.30am your time. What’s going on there? Can you tell me about that?” and just let John speak.

If John convinces you that there’s nothing concerning behind his behaviour, and this is how he wants to work, then you should accept that but also give him an opening to come back to you in the future. For example, you might say “Ok John, if that’s working for you then that’s your prerogative. Know that I care about you, so if there’s anything else going on there – now or in the future – please let me know. Otherwise, I’ll assume that this is you preferred way of working.”

Are they struggling to prioritize, or playing the martyr?

If, when you ask John about his 4am emails, he responds with something along the lines of “I’ve just got so much to do”, that’s a warning sign. Does he have too much on his plate and needs help to prioritize? Is he gaining some level of significance from playing the role of the martyr? Or is he being overly perfectionistic in his approach? None of these alternatives are sustainable, and need further exploration.

Start with a conversation about priorities. Ask John to tell you what are all of the important things consuming his time, and determine whether you think they’re all important. It’s very likely that John has no more than three to five really important things to get done in his role, so help him get to that conclusion. Beyond that, you may determine that John needs some additional resources or support, which he will appreciate you providing.

If John tries to convince you that EVERYTHING is important, then you may have a martyr or a perfectionist on your hands. In this case, have a very honest conversation about your expectations and what good looks like. It’s important that John knows that you don’t expect him to die at his desk, nor do you think that it’s effective behaviour in any way shape or form.

Are there cultural issues? Are you the issue?

If, when you ask John about his 4am emails, he responds with something along the lines of “everybody’s working really hard right now, so I need to as well”, then he may be reflecting a cultural expectation. By this I mean, John may believe that he needs to work at 4am in the morning in order to get ahead and get along in your organisation.

In this case, you should explore the beliefs underpinning John’s behaviour. Ask “what led you to the idea that you should be working so early? What am I doing that’s encouraging this behaviour?”

If other leaders in your team have been encouraging this behaviour, you need to address it openly and honestly with everyone affected. Silence is not an option; you need to bring it into the light, state your concerns, and articulate what you would like to see moving forward.

If you have been exhibiting behaviors that may be perpetuating this expectation, then you need to call those behaviors out and articulate why you’ve been exhibiting them. Either you need to have a compelling story about your behaviour, or you need to articulate what you’re going to do differently in future to model the behavior that you would like to see in others.

Have an adult to adult conversation

The key to all of this, is to avoid assumptions, judgments and paternalistic/maternalistic behaviour. That approach forces you to speak down to people, even if you have noble intentions. Instead, you want to talk to them at the same level, from a position of curiosity and openness, so that you figure out what’s really going on and can chart a path forward.

Conversations such as the one outlined here, are practically and symbolically important. Your aim is to ensure your people feel cared for, and to demonstrate your commitment to healthy and sustainable work practices for all.

If you’re looking for some bite-sized leadership insights, inspiration and tactics in between these long-form blogs, I’m now posting daily to Instagram. You can get access by following me here.

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about PETER

For two decades, Dr. Peter Fuda has been a Sherpa to leaders, teams and organizations across the globe. He’s coached more than 250 CEOs to measurably higher levels of performance. His consulting company has delivered dozens of cases of business transformation and thousands of individual cases of leadership transformation, at a success rate of greater than 90%.

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