Post-workshop fatigue and how to make group work better

All too often workshops are a grind, leaving facilitators and participants feeling grey, flat and exhausted - the tell-tale signs of post-workshop fatigue. So how can we make them better?
A close up of Post-it notes on a wall

Post-workshop fatigue. Noun.
Definition: a specific type of tiredness brought on by all-day group working sessions; a mental dullness that feels like brain cells moving through treacle.
Known cures: fresh air, exercise and unchallenging TV.

I had three workshops last week, and it took a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race and sea air to get me back to normal. Post-workshop fatigue is real, and I know I’m not the only one who suffers from it.

I’ve always accepted it as a part of my job. But it’s not. Accepting it is just another way of glorifying overwork and buying into the cult of ‘hustle’. It’s not healthy for me, and it’s not healthy for my clients either. Plus, it’s bad for business: do I want people to associate working with me with feeling like they’ve been drained of their life force?

So here’s three things I’ll do to make post-workshop fatigue the exception rather than the norm:

1. I’ll check we really need a workshop

The best way to avoid post-workshop fatigue? Don’t have a workshop.

Workshops are a useful when you need to collaborate or co-create (and probably a few other ‘c’ verbs). They’re time-efficient too; you can compress work that might otherwise take days into a few hours.

But they’re not right for everything.

Sometimes workshops are just briefings in disguise: an hour’s worth of content with some exercises thrown in to make it seem collaborative, when really it’s just about telling people something.

Other times, the facilitators are just doing the work with a live audience. Again this is to appear collaborative when actually the work should be happening behind closed doors.

There are also workshops to gather information, when one-on-one sessions, pair-working or a drop-in ‘clinic’ might be kinder and more time-efficient for stakeholders (and you).

2. Keep them short

From now on I’m going to keep my workshops to no longer than half a day. If I need longer than four hours, I’ll spread the agenda over two days.

I know that this will be tough. All too often workshops end up being booked in at the last minute and there’s always a challenge with people’s availability. But I think it’s an important ideal to work towards.

It’s a big ask for people to stay energetic and engaged for a whole day of intense work. In my experience people can grit their teeth and get through, but that’s probably why we’re all so drained the next day. Two half days is less intense and gives people a chance to take care of the ‘BAU’ they have mounting in the background. Better still, a break gives everyone breathing and percolating time, which can lead to better ideas and decision-making.

3. Make the right environment

Turning up to a workshop in a windowless room, with instant coffee and a beige buffet is a gloomy experience. Fresh air, the smell of good coffee and tasty food that doesn’t lead to an afternoon sugar-crash can make all the difference. I’m going to do more to make sure I have time and budget for these things.

There’s also the emotional side to creating a good environment. It could be something as simple as a check-in where you ask people to tell you how they’re feeling and if there’s anything on their mind, or an energiser exercise that gets people in a positive, open mindset. Think about who’s in the room, what you’re coming together to do and plan something appropriate.

These three things are in addition to normal workshop best-practice:

  • Have a goal, make sure everyone knows about it.
  • Choose your participants wisely and think carefully about how many people you can facilitate well.
  • Plan your agenda in a lot of detail and rehearse everything before the day.
  • Include a debrief or discussion after every exercise to share knowledge among the group (and get feedback yourself on how it was).
  • Take a break every 90 minutes or so.
  • Start easy then build to more difficult or involved exercises.
  • Start a ‘car park’ for off-topic questions and topics that you’ll tackle later.
  • Remember you’re there to facilitate the agenda and help the participants, not be the focus of attention or provide all the answers.
  • Recap at the end and give people the next steps.

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