Navigating Current Trends and Challenges in the Corporate Environment: An Interview with Psychologist Kristyna Cetkovska

In an insightful discussion with corporate psychologist Kristyna Cetkovska, we explore the latest trends shaping today's workplace, from the four-day workweek movement to the evolving boundaries between professional and personal life. Discover strategies for managing stress, fostering productivity, and building a resilient corporate culture in the face of change.

The trend of the four-day workweek is making its way to us from Western countries. Under what conditions can it work for companies?

Indeed, in the Western world (Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium, or Germany), many companies have started testing or even implementing a four-day workweek. The organization 4 Week Global highlights numerous benefits this work arrangement brings to people and companies, such as reduced turnover or the occurrence of burnout syndrome, and an increase in work productivity and ultimately company revenue. Companies that have set up a four-day work regime are precisely observing these positive impacts during the testing phase.

However, I am somewhat skeptical, especially in the long term. We are still in the early stages to assess whether the four-day work regime can maintain these impacts in the long run or whether it will become the "new normal," and people will slide back to lower productivity, with Sunday once again carrying the risk of "Sunday neurosis."

But I believe it is possible to counter this, primarily through work organization and proper managerial leadership. It's important that work demands can be met within those four days and that people do not leave on Thursday feeling that they need an extra day, both in terms of individual tasks and team collaboration. This also applies to the manager's role, who should understand the shortened week, not expect the same amount of work, or opening laptops over the weekend. The same should be communicated externally from the company (to clients, suppliers, etc.). In such an atmosphere, work will be much better organized, and consequently, there will be time for "extra" tasks, which will increase overall productivity.

And what should we watch out for in this experiment?

As mentioned earlier, but let me elaborate. It's crucial to be cautious about the work expectations managers set for their team members in terms of performance or availability. An example could be when a manager expects a task to be completed by the end of the week without realizing that the week only has four days, making the assignment more unrealistic. The employee then works under the pressure of such an unrealistic task, which results in working more hours from Monday to Thursday or taking work into the newly extended weekend. Their frustration increases, leading to nothing positive. Therefore, it's necessary to realistically reassess work tasks in the new regime and be open to discussion in the entire team. Everyone will create "their new order," and it's essential to be aligned.

The boundary between work and personal life, often referred to as work-life balance, is a thing of the past. Now it's more about "life balance." How does this manifest in the workplace?

The nine-to-five work regime is already a thing of the past in many workplaces, thanks to post-COVID, hybrid work modes, technologies, etc. However, this doesn't mean our work commitment has no limits.

The "new normal" places high demands on us concerning mental health care.

In the workplace, this trend manifests in various ways. Many companies are relaxing their working hours or not focusing on when people start/end their work. Some have designated "core" hours, a time interval when a person should be reachable (e.g., 10-15 hrs.), but whether they start working at 8:00 is entirely up to them. Some function through simple work time markings in a shared calendar, notifying colleagues. The place of work plays a significant role here, as technologies allow many of us to work from almost anywhere today.

As a result, a person's workday is interspersed with work, morning personal errands, lunch with a colleague, work, picking up children from kindergarten, opening emails in the late afternoon/evening, etc.

The strict work-life boundaries we knew before no longer apply.

More advanced companies and teams agree with this, as the modern trend focuses more on the work done rather than the number of hours spent at work. However, this trend can place high personal demands on an individual. Not everyone can navigate it well and efficiently organize their work so that an afternoon trip to school/kindergarten does not disrupt their work flow.

What specific demands does the "new normal" place on us? And how can we best navigate it to maintain mental well-being?

The "limitless" working hours and availability of technologies lead us to the tendency to be constantly on call, i.e., checking emails, notifications, etc. By doing so, we constantly keep ourselves attentive and thinking about work, making it harder for us to find space for relaxation and rest, which is equally important to invest in as work. Let's be honest, who among us checks emails before work and responds to work messages in their personal time? In the modern concept of work flexibility, this is "allowed" since the previously common boundaries are blurring, and the possibility of solving a small work task via phone is offered even from the comfort of one's couch while watching a movie.

One of the first steps toward mental well-being in this modernity is self-reflection of our time.

When during the day do I work, and when do I focus on myself? When during the day do I need a break to recharge and "micro" regenerate, and when can I operate at full capacity? Not everything is completely flexible, as we often collaborate with others. However, it's good to first become aware of our own functioning throughout the day and week and then define our boundaries, beyond which we do not respond to work messages or check notifications.

Research shows that our job satisfaction and other variables are influenced by the type of manager we have. What can we do to "straighten out" a bad manager?

Ah, a tough question, which is very conditional on our manager's level of self-reflection and openness. It's probably fair to say at the outset that if our manager lacks both, it will be very difficult to "straighten them out." However, if there's hope in this regard, the first steps involve the not-so-popular feedback.

Feedback doesn't only belong in the manager-subordinate direction but works the other way around too. Until we tell our manager what they could change in their approach or behavior, they will live under the assumption that no problem exists. It's important to view this conversation as a discussion, provide specific examples of behavior, and especially their impact on your feelings, satisfaction, etc. In other words, lead the feedback constructively, not aggressively.

If you've already done this and nothing has changed, I highly recommend returning to the conversation and showing that it's still important to you. In some companies, there are additional tools for feedback towards the manager (i.e., upward feedback or 360° feedback), so it might be worth asking your internal HR department if any of these are available to you.

The importance of "recovering" after a stressful period at work is described by the concept of recovery experience. How can we use it in practice, in your opinion?

The recovery concept is based on four main needs each of us has: Psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery (the experience of success), and control. Therefore, if we have experienced a very challenging and stressful period at work, it's important to focus our attention on these areas. I add that this can also work nicely on a daily basis, and we can approach recovery throughout the week, not just after an intense period.

  • For psychological detachment, it's important when we engage in activities that allow us to "forget" about work topics. For some, it might be an adrenaline-pumping sport; for others, cooking.
  • Relaxation is then the time when we lower our arousal level, thereby calming bodily functions. This obviously works well in sleep, but also in reading a book or watching a movie.
  • We can approach the experience of success by spending time doing something we know we're good at.
  • Small successes (e.g., baking a delicious cake, winning a board game, etc.) greatly aid in regeneration. They are trivialities but bring positive feelings.

Lastly, it's important for us to return to having at least some decisions and activities under our control after a stressful period, which is typically unpredictable. All these measures form the "Recovery experience" and gradually help us return to a pre-stress situation.

Uncertain times full of changes also contribute to personal crises. How to properly communicate with a colleague who is in crisis?

This is an important question, with the important caveat that most of us are not crisis interveners or psychologists to go into crisis situations expecting our communication to be professional/expert. It's perfectly okay if we stick to the basic principles of empathy and indulgence.

If you've noticed that your colleague has been behaving differently lately, the first step in supporting him/her is simply opening up space for conversation. Ideally somewhere where you won't be disturbed by others and can have at least some private conversation. It's appropriate to open the topic with an open question like "How are you doing?" or "How have you been feeling lately?" instead of "You're not doing well, right?" Let's not assume something we don't know. At this moment, you'll see whether the colleague wants to talk about the topic or not, and it's perfectly okay if they don't. If they do, our role is not to trivialize or ridicule the colleague's situation. It's enough to listen to them and dedicate some time.

Crisis also belongs to work. The topic touches on how we can communicate with a colleague who is in a current stress reaction/experiencing a crisis (whether work-related or otherwise) and what we ourselves can do, how to recognize a crisis, and the overall normalization of this state. In other words, that the work environment is not a vacuum where only a professional smile without emotions and negative/positive inner states belongs.

Care for mental health in companies is not just the responsibility of the HR department. Who else can contribute to building corporate wellbeing, and how?

This question again points mainly to managers, who largely create the "well-being" culture in their teams and, by extension, the entire company. Unfortunately, I still encounter the opinion among managers that the topic of mental health does not belong in the workplace. However, I firmly believe that by doing so, they lose "points" with others (especially the younger generation), who see this as a strong value.

Building a well-being culture is not fundamentally about big strategies, but about everyday life. 

If a manager takes this topic to heart (or already sees it that way), it's enough if they are first and foremost attentive to the behavior and moods of their subordinates. They can thus better catch when something is happening and respond to it. Secondly, it's important when they let others know that they care. Whether at team meetings or during personal conversations, it's enough to simply say honestly that they care about how others feel at work. If a more challenging situation arises in the team in this regard, it's obvious to recognize the limits of one's role and ask for help from a specialist.

Gallup in its research and article on trends for 2024 highlights the connection between looking for a new job and the fact that my employer does not care about my mental health.

You have been following the development in companies from the perspective of psychology for many years. What do you think we are managing to push forward on a global level, and where do you see significant gaps in companies, according to you?

I think this question could be answered in many directions, so I'll try to select the most significant observations I've made. From my point of view, in the field of corporate psychology, we have learned to label current events with terms such as phenomenon, syndrome, etc., over the last few years. Whether we mention Quiet quitting, Big quit, Imposter syndrome, and others, and I'm just listing the most recent ones.

We're doing quite well at naming states (individual/social). However, the measures that would address and solve these issues are lacking.

Companies often address problems superficially and without longevity. Lastly, the big topic is stigma, which is gradually improving over time, yet we still have a considerable part of the population that believes mental health does not belong at work. I add that I myself operate in the capital city and can imagine that in some parts of the country, they are even more at the beginning in these topics.