Burnout is indiscriminate, pervasive, and on the rise. Global employment website Indeed found that over half of the 1,500 American employees (52%) it surveyed felt burned out, with the phenomenon cutting across all generations. Ironically, for leaders, trying to manage employee stress can add to pressure that makes them vulnerable to mental and physical exhaustion themselves.
A Deloitte survey released in June found that 69% of C-suite executives were considering resigning due to burnout in favor of jobs that were more supportive of their wellbeing. According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout manifests as irritability in and out of work, symptoms of depression, low motivation, and difficulties with concentration and productivity. This may account for the fact that executives had not become more aware of the struggles of employees suffering from the same issue.
Just 56% of employees in the Deloitte survey agreed that executives at their company cared about their wellbeing. However, 91% of the C-suite personnel thought that employees believed executives cared about it. That’s a major disconnect. To bridge the gap, effective leaders can develop best practices for burnout reduction that account for both the workforce and leadership.
The Impact of Stress, from Top to Bottom
Optimizing productivity, decreasing turnover, and achieving financial goals are all high priorities for many businesses, and studies indicate that high stress significantly hinders accomplishing those goals. Managing stress and burnout will benefit both management and employees by creating a happier, healthier workforce while reducing costs and boosting productivity.
Executives and small business owners, who are often juggling multiple projects, priorities, and teams, are highly susceptible to burnout. Considering the strain of working 40- to 80-hour-plus weeks while bearing the weight of responsibility, this is not surprising. Unless leaders attend to their own mental health, their ability to improve conditions for the team is compromised.
Although it is not clinically defined, burnout is a well-known phenomenon. Sufferers frequently feel exhausted, but beyond that, they are also at substantial risk of developing severe self-doubt as well as physical ailments, including hypertension and diabetes.
In the workplace, burnout indicators include increased absenteeism and disengagement. Cynical or irritable attitudes about clients, customers, or projects become noticeable. More call-outs and sick days have also been correlated with increases in burnout. Low morale is another common symptom.
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The Search for Effective Solutions
Many leaders have begun developing solutions to the growing problem of burnout. From 30-hour work weeks to setting clearly defined goals, the options are myriad. However, the solutions that achieve the best results are those that address the root problem: heavy workloads and light support or rewards. A 2017 paper published by the Canadian Center of Science and Education showed a direct link between lower burnout and job satisfaction — defined as the degree to which the workplace meets expectations about compensation, managers, coworkers, and career growth.
The researchers noted that employee development programs, while effective for some people, actually increased burnout in others. “It is possible that the long time spent on developmental activities could increase the burnout effect if said employee was under work pressure and thus perceiving the developmental activities as another workload or as an irrelevant misplaced activity,” the authors write.
It is important for management to be conscious of how their programs are received and make appropriate adjustments. Although introducing social events and wellness programs may help some employees, for many a reduced workload or improved support will have a greater effect.
Targeting the Areas That Matter
One 2019 randomized clinical trial involving almost 33,000 employees at a retail warehouse company found that implementing a wellness program did not impact absenteeism or other costly burnout symptoms. By contrast, Patagonia reported a 100% retention rate of mothers once it began offering on-site childcare — much higher than other companies. The difference? A wellness program creates more tasks for employees. On-site childcare removes tasks. When participating in a wellness program, the employee must find more time to exercise, purchase more expensive, unprepared food, and track progress while maintaining new habits.
Provided childcare eliminates the extra commute to daycare before and after work, it enables working parents to keep more of their income, and reduces the effort required to maintain or retain affordable childcare.
Another solution with some promise is mandatory vacation time, which one company found effectively increased creativity by 33% and productivity by 13%. This research is still young, but other companies have reported anecdotal benefits as well as quality-of-life improvements. The caveat is that without efforts to reduce or redistribute the work, many workers resist taking time off because they are unable to unplug effectively while away, and then work harder or longer upon their return to catch up.
Should a company choose to implement mandatory vacation time (or paying employees to take vacation), it is advisable to account for other factors in the work environment to determine whether it will be effective.
The Importance of Leading by Example
By raising retention and job satisfaction, managers and executives can decrease personnel costs and improve innovation and productivity. However, because leadership is also at risk of burnout, employees aren’t the only ones who will be sent on vacation.
For leaders, the stakes are higher. Those who take vacation time set a positive example for employees. Addressing burnout will create a culture where employees feel freer to take vacation themselves, increasing productivity throughout the organization.
There are other benefits to leaders taking time off. It provides time to reflect on goals and accomplishments, helps to determine how self-sufficient their team is, and encourages employee confidence in their abilities.
By implementing practical solutions, communicating effectively with team members, and leading by example, managers and executives can make great strides towards improving workplace culture and lowering burnout-related costs.