Prolonged digital fatigue and burnout are severely stifling creativity at work. Asynchronous communication, back-to-back virtual meetings, and confusing return-to-office policies have become the norm for many, causing innovation to take a backseat as workers simply try to make it through the day.
In fact, burnout levels are skyrocketing right now. More than 40 percent of employees, an all-time high percentage since spring 2021, report workplace stress right now. Plus, with additional fears and anxiety about job security mounting amidst layoffs and hiring freezes, now is the time to reassure and re-engage employees.
Career coach and author Shanita Liu says creativity requires energy, and employees can’t expend that energy if they’re depleted mentally. “Employees and leaders must check in with one another regularly to talk about the way burnout impacts their ability to be innovative,” she says. “Leaders should also get crystal clear with their teams about upcoming projects that require creative contributions so that they can create space in their calendars to plan their energy and time allocations accordingly.”
For leaders hoping to reinspire their employees, here are several approaches, exercises, and activities to employ to encourage more innovative thinking and problem-solving among employees.
Read more: 13 Signs of a Positive Workplace Culture
11 ways to inspire creativity among employees
Exercising the right brain is important for employees’ growth and happiness, but it’s also necessary for business success. According to McKinsey & Company's award creativity score, there's a direct link between a company's financial performance and its creativity. Of the firms deemed creative by McKinsey's metrics, 67 percent showed above-average revenue growth.
If leaders want their businesses to stay ahead of their competition, they must create an environment that fosters and invites open-mindedness, innovation, and curiosity for their employees. Here’s how to boost creativity past traditional brainstorming sessions.
1. Make time for play
“Leaders can encourage their teams to make time and space in their day to play. That’s right—play time during the workday,” says Liu. “Play time is linked to boosting brain cells and kickstarting creativity. If you have an office setting, there could be a space with toys, blank notebooks and markers, and/or fun games to engage people in thinking either outside of the box or in just being a parameter-free way.” Offer journal questions or sketch suggestions.
2. Host an “innovation day”
Each quarter, ask employees to press pause on their normal responsibilities for a day and identify three priorities or problems they’d like to solve at work. Then, hold an “innovation day” during which employees can come together to develop a potential solution to one of those problems. Afterward, allow them to present their findings to the team and problem-solve issues that would normally be lower on their priority list.
3. Take a field trip
Even a small change in your surroundings can boost creativity and alleviate some of the monotony of the workday. “If there is an opportunity to go offsite, a fun field trip could support employees with a change in environment that relieves them from the daily grind and offers space for exploration and curiosity,” says Liu. Your trip doesn’t have to be a fully planned out day, you can even move a weekly standing meeting to an outside location.
4. Schedule intentional creative time
Encourage teams to try a new hobby or activity at least once a week to challenge their routines. “If employers have remote employees, they can encourage them to designate a creative hour or window of time each week (or biweekly) to engage in whatever activity feels creative for them,” Liu says. Offer suggestions like taking up knitting, a new musical instrument, cooking an elaborate recipe, or sketching a nature scene outside.
5. Encourage mental health days
Mental health days are imperative for staving off burnout and allowing employees to recharge, unwind, and focus on doing things they love. Plus, research shows positive mental health is associated with higher levels of creativity. Prioritizing the mental health of employees through work schedules is one easy way to help boost creativity while being authentic, not performative, according to Pooja Kothari, a diversity, equity, and inclusion trainer and CEO of Boundless Awareness.
“Mean what you say and back it up with action. Consider enacting ‘Fall Fridays’ where employees have the opportunity to work from home, work a half day, or take the day off, no questions asked,” she says. Want to take it a step further? Kothari says collaborative research shows four-day work weeks increase productivity while supporting the mental and physical wellbeing of employees, so shortening the work week has the potential to stimulate creativity.
6. Hire a wellness coach
If you can’t make mental health days a regular part of your schedule, reiterate your commitment to the mental health of your employees through wellness coaching, a process aimed at helping them adopt a positive mindset and make lifestyle changes to support their goals. “Show your employees you care about their wellbeing and energy–energy that transfers into their work,” says Kothari. “Consider hiring a wellness coach to come in for one-on-one appointments. Or, if your office is remote, consider partnering with a wellness spa to offer a discount or promotion for your employees.”
7. Offer a somatics class
“Somatics, which consists of any practice that leverages the mind and body connection to improve wellbeing, is a great addition to any creativity-boosting initiative,” says Liu. “Group somatic practices like stretching, walking, and dancing can help employees go beyond their already taxed brains and tap into the wisdom that's in their bodies.” She says since there are so many types of somatic practices, employers can survey their teams with a few options to see what sparks interest and make a fun activity out of it.
8. Ask employees to create a fake sales pitch
This team-building activity allows employees to creatively collaborate and problem-solve with low stakes. Break your team into small groups of a few people and ask them to give a short sales pitch for a random, mundane item, like a pen, scissors, or a broom. Give them a few minutes to brainstorm as a group on what their “pitch” will be. This lets them be silly and creative, have a laugh, and most importantly, shakes up the routine of their day.
9. Perform a restorative circle
Kothari says restorative circles, a type of discussion format in which employees sit in a circle and speak one at a time, allow employees space and time to express their feelings and build trust with their colleagues. “Restorative circles are a great way to have employees engage outside of the office,” she says. “Hold circles in a nearby park or cozy cafe. Most importantly, bring in a trained mediator to create a psychologically safe environment for circle members to speak openly and honestly. For hierarchical organizations, having multiple level-specific restorative circles is suggested.”
10. Invite collaboration between employee resource groups (ERGs)
“Already have established ERGs? Managers and leaders can prompt inter-ERG collaboration by developing joint initiatives like workshops and panel discussions that pull resources and perspectives from multiple groups,” Kothari says. “Doing so not only connects employees from across the organization, but it also gives employees a sense of authority in how they impact the company.”
11. Hang up a whiteboard with creative prompts
Somewhere in the office, hang up a whiteboard and markers or cork board and Post-It Notes that feature rotating questions and prompts every day. The prompts don’t necessarily have to be work-related—simply encouraging employees to jumpstart their morning with a brainstorming exercise like this will boost creativity in their work throughout the day and create a positive culture filled with gratitude. If your team is remote, post the questions in a designated Slack channel every morning.
Some example prompts might include:
Reflect on a phrase, quote, or mantra that resonates with you. Explain why it’s significant to you.
Share three things that made you smile today.
Imagine you’re an animal for a day. What animal would you pick and what would you do?
Pick an everyday object from your surroundings, like a plant or a granola bar. Write a detailed description of it as if you've never seen it before.
If you had a time machine and you could go anywhere in the past or future, where would you go and what would you do there?
Invent a gadget that would make your life more efficient or interesting.
Describe a meal you ate today. What smells, colors, textures, or tastes, did you experience?