Burnout Isn't Inevitable When You Prioritize Prevention

This Week in HR, I want to look at burnout. Over half of workers who responded to an independent mid-2020 survey claimed to be experiencing mild to serious burnout and a majority among them would consider leaving their jobs once the pandemic ends.

What is burnout? It’s more than the exhaustion that people think defines the experience. Burnout has three components. One is the exhaustion — physical and emotional — you feel when you've been too stressed at work for too long. But burnout also comes with a feeling of cynicism about work. "You know, it's ... 'take this job and shove it' sort of thing.” You begin to switch from trying to do your very best all the time to do the bare minimum.

The third component is when you start to blame yourself for it. Thinking, 'What has gone wrong with me?' 'Why am I not good at this?' 'Why can't I handle it?'

The tools employers traditionally used to mitigate burnout, such as work/life balance initiatives, engagement surveys, employee recognition, and performance management, are tenuous in the new remote work environment. Everyone is stretched; every tool feels just like that, toolish. So, you have to be resolute. Steadfast commitment to your organization’s culture programs is a critical component of an effective remote work retention strategy, especially with so many changes in every other facet of life. Employees need to know that you care about their working experience, that work/life balance is a core value of the company, and that you approach engagement empathetically.

The last statement is the most important part of all. Expecting productivity from employees is naturally ok. There is a going sense that managers perceive remote work as less productive, though. Employees worry their bosses do not think they’re productive enough, so they overcompensate with longer hours, harder work, more output. Burnout doesn’t necessarily happen because employees are overworked for their roles, it often does, however, because they’re overworking for their managers. It could also be that a changing world requires different skills than workers currently possess, that changing consumerism is requiring employees to pivot and stretch uncomfortably.

Burnout can also result from dysfunction and helplessness--when you can do nothing to change your work environment or circumstances and you feel your managers don’t see what’s happening to top it all off.

So, how do managers prevent or mitigate burnout? Plan a little and feel a little:

  • Think about how your business is evolving and how you can communicate the changes to employees as opportunities, not depressing problems. Anticipate challenges and express your commitment to support workers through them.
  • Consider the skills needed in the next few months and years to accomplish your goals and incentivize professional growth.
  • Notice how your employees interact. Are there any cliques developing? Are there exclusions? Bullying can be a major driver of burnout.
  • Talk to your employees constantly. Ask them forthrightly if there are any concerns, and don’t settle for an answer like, “No, no problem.” Don’t make them imagine problems just for the sake of conversation but remind them about the various stimuli in your life that can detract from your work, so they feel common ground with you. Don’t forget to remind employees of mental health tools that are offered by your business such as EAPs, too.
  • Acknowledge the good work, every single time.
  • Notice when people are clocking in later or earlier or producing more than usual and don’t discourage it; acknowledge it and get to the bottom of it. If it’s all in an effort to impress the boss, you need to detect that and root out the cultural issues with it. Usually, a culture that values productivity over employee sanity is something that needs a plan to mitigate and change. Always remember overworking is totally unsustainable and whatever aspects of that kind of productivity you can appreciate in the moment, keep in mind it won’t last and the next phase is employee burnout - low productivity and crumby output. *If they’re clocking in at odd hours, this could also be their way of flexible scheduling, so it isn’t always bad. Just help them manage their time by staying on top of it.
  • Keep doing all the other things, like Performance and Engagement management and employee recognition. If you are using a system for Performance Management, Engagement Surveys, Employee Recognition, etc. keep it up. People need consistency, especially in how their work is recognized. The expectations in office are good out of office and they help employees to avoid overworking, just to show they’re working.
  • Finally, guard against burnout in your own life. Ask yourself the questions you ask your employees. You can be honest with yourself and you can implement better work/life balance in your own life in all the same ways that you would help your employees. But it starts with questions, a plan, and commitment to that plan.
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