Avoiding the Next Emerging Crisis: Worker Burnout

So many things have changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that it has become increasingly difficult to track each of the shifts that have emerged from the turmoil. The past 18 months have truly impacted us in more ways than one; whether it’s in work, health, financial stability or our personal relationships, no one’s life is the same as it was back in March 2020.

This profound transformation in how we live and work has pushed us beyond any limit, and even though the severity of the impact varies depending on where you’re living today, something has been uniformly damaging for workers all around the world—and it’s that productivity levels have been expected to stay firm or even increase in the midst of a pandemic.

So, what did that do to the workplace, among other factors? It created the worst unemployment rates in over a decade, globally—and, naturally, caused usually reliable workers to burn out, as their productivity levels have been expected to stay firm or even increase despite the fact that most companies cut costs to withstand lesser revenues, and turbocharged responsibilities for the employees that remained in the payroll.

How did we get here? This certainly didn’t happen overnight. For decades, differences in work descriptions have been blurring —causing an overlap in workspaces where nobody truly knows where their scope ends— and the idea of having a healthy work-life balance has been thrown out the window. Besides, the pandemic added a new layer to the “always-on” mentality, as WFH (work from home) settings essentially disappeared the boundaries between home & office.

So, how do we continue to go through it? What can we as individuals and organizations do to better support people? It’s crucial to take a step back and really think about what’s happening all around the globe, and also understand that everyone is going through this in at least a slightly different way—all while trying to earn a living, and take care of themselves. It’s clear that your company should have your back… but, how?

Raising awareness

First of all, we have to understand what burnout is. Originally, this concept came about in the 70’s, after analyzing nurses and caretakers and their working days, and it was defined as a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not successfully been managed, and that is hard to eradicate both from worker’s routines and the culture of a company—especially during its biggest growth period.

With time, the situation only got worse, as climbing the corporate ladder turned into a life ambition, and the start-up landscape started glamorizing working hard in order to get things done. Around 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) took upon itself to even classify burnout as a disease, partly to raise awareness about its prevalence in the workforce, and also to finally get those who need professional aid the help they need.

However, this only glances over the actual problem. Most people —and their companies— don’t even know they’re burned out, or on the brink of it. That begs the question: how can one tell? For starters, it usually happens to over-engaged workers, who either are assigned way too many tasks, or ask to take on more than they can efficiently perform. The WHO mentions three key elements in most cases of burnout: feelings of exhaustion, mental detachment from one’s job and poorer performance at work.

Of course, living under a stressful routine —especially during today’s unprecedented events— can and will put employees under extreme pressure, which in turn makes them unable to cope with even the smallest requirements of their job. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “some causes of burnout may also include feeling either permanently overworked or under-challenged, being under time pressure, or having conflicts with colleagues.” That means that, in the end, this “extreme commitment results in people neglecting their own needs.”

Work-related exhaustion issues haven’t improved recently; in fact, as we noted before, the pandemic has only made them worse. According to a new HBR study, which asked individuals about the impact burnout has had on them, personally, these are some of the key changes:

 

  • 89% Work life is getting worse
  • 85% Well-being has declined
  • 25% Family connection is impossible to keep strong
  • 56% Job demand has increased

 

This correlates with the pandemic downsizing, as well: with unemployment numbers increasing, those that were lucky enough to keep their jobs took on more responsibilities, more stress and more metrics to be reviewed on, because there was less people to do the actual work—and, in some cases, this meant cutting parts from their own team: some workers have even mentioned in personal social media testimonies that, in order to keep their jobs, middle managers had to let go of their team members, and take on their daily tasks. That’s a recipe for disaster.

What does this mean from a business standpoint?

  • $1 trillion USD of global loss in productivity per year.
  • 550 million workdays are lost due to stress on the job in the US alone.
  • High performers are 2.6x more likely to start looking for jobs.

Why are more people open to new opportunities? In many cases, organizations are trying their best to keep their workforce happy and thriving, but the real challenge is keeping high performers engaged, because most of them will start seeking a different job or be open to new opportunities once their workload increases, but remuneration —among other things— doesn’t. And, in fact, this situation can turn into a lose-lose for the company, because if they manage to keep top talent but overwhelm them with labor, they’ll start burning out and repeating the cycle until things change. Which leads us to…

Combating burnout in the Workplace

We tend to think of burnout as a personal problem, but it isn’t. It reflects more on the company than individual employees. Burnout is an organizational problem that requires an organizational solution. You may think that encouraging your people to do yoga, to get enough sleep, to work out and meditate, and overall lead a healthy lifestyle, is going to do the trick… and no! Those actions are fine, but, as workplace climate evaluators, you have to uproot the issue.

Even a relaxed, well-balanced employee might have household chores, family issues to tend to, or may even be  facing some significant personal challenges! These things, coupled with an overwhelming workspace, can be the catalyst towards burnout. First, you need to attack the problem from the right angle, and that is, by understanding what causes it—even if you can’t perceive it in your culture, it might be bubbling behind your back:

Key causes of burnout in the Workplace

  • Unsustainable Workloads

Most times, top performers are the ones that are burned out the most. These incredibly valuable employees are reaching a breaking point, because they are often the ones that take more responsibilities at work, are put on the hardest projects by their managers or colleagues, or are expected to compensate for other employees.

  • Insufficient recognition

Who doesn’t love a pat on the back when they put an extra effort into a project? This definitely isn’t a “millennial issue,” despite what the cliché might say. Recognition comes in many shapes and sizes, from giving your employees the opportunity to do something meaningful at the company, to even implementing simple ways to celebrate their colleagues’ success. Recognition impacts a company’s culture directly to its core, and it could be as simple as designating an employee of the month, and as complex as giving out special work perks for top performers.

  • Perceived lack of fairness

No matter how fair you try to be when making the hardest choices for the company, ultimately, employees call for themselves whether a decision in the company has been made fairly, or not. When workers are given an inflexible outcome, they actually tend to process it a lot better if they understand why and how that decision was made, and this works even better if they are made part of the process. The way you approach them is key, and we should always remember that the best promoter you could have is a happy employee.

  • Lack of a supportive community

As a culture leader, keep this in mind, always: Team Building should be a core process in your company, maybe as high a priority as budget making! A positive community within work comes not only in the form of managers who reinforce positive communication, but also in the bonds employees form with other colleagues, whether they’re in the same department or on opposite sides of the organizational chart.

Sharing continuously what you’re working on, and why you’re important for the company, is as key as bringing your whole self to the office, and will help a lot towards being perceived as a leader and getting that valuable positive feedback whenever something arises.

How to prevent burnout in the Workplace

Manageable workloads

Communicate more often and effectively about goals and priorities. Without going as far as completely removing working hours, a company can give employees more freedom and flexibility to manage their workloads, keeping them goal-oriented so they can take a break whenever they need to, and don’t need to worry about skipping a meeting or not making a soft deadline.

Leverage Agile approaches

Some teams have a hard time multitasking, especially without the guidance of a hands-on team leader, or by trying to do too much—sometimes everything at once! No mind has ever worked right with a method this messy. Relieving your team of less-essential, menial tasks, and giving them a way to cut approximately half the steps that need to be taken to achieve a goal, will help them focus on the important, key parts of a project’s roadmap, improving delivery times by almost 50% by getting people to limit their work-in-progress at a given time, and virtually eliminating the “too much demand versus too little capacity” syndrome.

  • Let teams focus on fewer, more critical activities.
  • Initiative backlogs are used to set and re-set priorities.
  • Sustained focus on the most important priorities.
  • Projects are time-boxed.

While you’re overseeing a project, always make sure employees are comfortable speaking up when they are over capacity, or asking for help so you can both sit down to review priorities and fine-tune the delicate balance needed to achieve a goal.

Employee desire for flexibility

Some people work better in the office. Others, at home. Hear us out: what employees really want is the power to decide. There is nothing that deteriorates organizational morale more than being forced to make decisions that will affect your routine, and, as we previously established, the first step to burnout is a toxic routine.

The office will not die, despite what has been widely reported. Its function as a social and meeting place, and as a space where the work that we carry out in the company is formalized, will last for many more decades. However, some employees who prefer to perform high concentration tasks at home, will actually perform better at home. Flexibility is key. Stay in tune with what your culture wants.

Reassessment of boundaries

During the peak of the pandemic, many employees had to stay at home for prolonged periods of time, during which they migrated from screen to screen, whether it was for work, information, entertainment or connection with family and friends. This effectively blurred the lines and boundaries between our work lives, and our home lives, making it impossible to “unplug.”

If you take a look at the self-help guides made to get over burnout, they all mention a variation of how to fix your work from home setup—this means that it is an issue, but there’s no one better to combat it than the actual employer who sets the rules of the game in the first place. Some ideas: establish policies for email checking & answering, limit off-hours conference calls and actual phone calls, or establish staggered mandatory offline blocks for your workforce.

Empathetic managers

It has always been said that the best manager is the one that grows along with the company, and knows exactly what the actual jobs of the people they have in charge are. A modern manager, however, must take that into account, and, in addition, they have to always be connected with the empathic part of their supervision responsibilities—that is, the constant reminder that employees are people, and as such, they are complex beings and not robots.

Managers need to put themselves in the shoes of their team members, remember when they were in their position, and try to understand that an outcome not only depends on one factor —the employee— but on an almost endless combination of situations that lead to a specific one. Like everything in life, communicating with empathy solves more problems than dozens of mediation sessions.

The next emerging crisis is just around the corner, and it’s partly on us to prevent it from going widespread 👉🏼 Learn more about what organizations can do to prevent Burnout in the Workplace in this session below from Sanja Licina Ph.D., President, Workforce and Andrea O’Leary, Senior Director, Culture & Change, AON.