by Shayne Thomas
14 Apr 2021
It’s About Time We All Take Employee Burnout Seriously
3 ways to help your employees avoid burnout before it’s too late
Over the past year, and with many offices still not welcoming employees back in full force, many of us have found ourselves primarily working from home. Now, under pre-pandemic circumstances, this would have been considered a serious perk, a breather from day-to-day office life. (And for some of you, an opportunity to a little at-home multi-tasking, too!)
Today, however, the story is a bit different. Home has essentially become synonymous with the office—and that’s blurred many of the lines between people’s personal and professional lives. And unfortunately, this has had consequences on general employee wellbeing.
Although there is a long list of stats that speak to the many virtues of working from home—many of which this writer agrees with wholeheartedly—the truth is, a change of scenery every now and then still does people a world of good. This is not only because it forces us to maintain sanity by creating some semblance of work-life balance, but also because, quite frankly, humans are social creatures who need to go out into the world and engage with other people. Being stuck at home every day behind your computer, with Zoom calls as your only bit of non-family human connection, simply doesn’t go far enough. We all need to unplug.
But there’s another side to this. Many work-from-home stats speak to the fact that remote workers tend to be more productive than their office-based counterparts. During the pandemic, however, increased productivity has become confused with not setting limits. On a daily basis, whether you’re tackling your work to-do list or taking care of your family—and everything else in between—it’s easy to fall into an “all work or nothing” rut.
This can quickly spiral out of control. One of the key symptoms, which businesses have seen pop up in greater numbers over the past year, is employee burnout. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: People are working more than ever with very little else to help them decompress, either physically or mentally. And it’s starting—if not already—to take a serious toll on everyone.
As HR leaders and managers, it’s your responsibility to catch the warning signs of employee burnout well before it leads to declines in productivity, engagement, and morale. And eventually, if left unchecked, it can lead to a rise in employee turnover. None of this good.
There are some easy ways to prevent employee burnout
A Deloitte survey published back in 2015 found that 87 percent of professionals were truly passionate about their jobs. But passion alone doesn’t equate to happiness. Sixty-four percent of them said that they were “frequently stressed” by their work, with another nearly 70 percent agreeing that their employer hasn’t done enough to help prevent employee burnout.
The problem here is clear: If this nod to employee burnout was already trending well before people around the world were carrying the weight of a massive pandemic on their shoulders, then you can only imagine what the state of employee burnout looks like today.
Truth be told, everyone needs a break—from work, from life, from the news, from everything. We have experienced a non-stop emotional rollercoaster ride that continues to surprise us with unexpected twists and turns every day. We’re not in the clear yet, nor will a return to pre-pandemic life, if you can even remember what that was like, erase the trauma of the past year. But that’s not an excuse to let employees keep burning the candle at both ends.
Now’s the time to double down on employee wellbeing like you probably never have before. As a starting point, here are a few things that you can do proactively to give your employees a little more peace of mind and a sense of balance each day.
1. Discuss workload openly (and often!)
With nothing else but work to fill up the day—and no believable way to say, “I’m sorry, I’m too ‘busy’ to do that”—many employees have just let work pile up. But this isn’t the employee’s fault. Everyone, including managers, are in full-on work mode, and this creates a domino effect that trickles down to pretty much everyone within an organization. After all, when there are no off-site meetings with clients, work-related travel, conferences and professional events to attend, team get-togethers, and anything of the sort that would normally punctuate an employee’s work schedule, everyone’s focus is on work, work, and more work.
This isn’t healthy nor will it contribute to employee productivity over the long term. And it’s why managers must be proactive about having regular check-ins with the people on their team to ensure that every employee’s workload is in a manageable place. But managers won’t ever know when, if, and where there are serious strains or bottlenecks—much less when managing a distributed workforce—if they don’t provide an opportunity for team members to communicate openly and honestly about their workload and work together to find a viable solution.
2. Model the behaviors you expect to see
Even though we’re talking here about how you, as a manager or leader, can help your employees avoid reaching burnout, you could very easily fall into that same rut, too. If you’ve thrown your work-life balance out of the window, perhaps because of pressure coming from your own higher-ups, it’s highly likely that your bad work habits will trickle down to your team.
Your employees look to you as a model of what’s expected. If you’re shooting off a series of emails, with “urgent” action items at 10 pm or later every night, you send a strong message to your team that work-life really has no boundaries. And although this might just be a way to “catch up” after a long day of meetings, just so you can clear out your inbox, why not send those emails on delay for the next morning to avoid your team members from having a panic attack when they should, ideally, be switching off for the night?
All of this needs to be addressed at the company level. If your company’s culture is defined by being in panic mode—or some other state of unhealthy work habits—all the time, it will have negative consequences that ripple across your workforce. This is even more important when so many people are still working from home, where the work-life balance is already compromised.
3. Encourage employees to take breaks when they need it
It’s no secret that Americans work a lot. We were all raised to believe in the capitalistic truism that “hard work pays off.” And this is indicative of the work-with-no-boundaries culture that we have created since the country’s founding. An offshoot of this very US-only approach to work is an unspoken belief that taking time off is bad—whether you’re sick, want to go on vacation, or just need a moment to step away from the stress of work.
So it should come as no surprise that, in 2017, 54 percent of Americans had unused vacation benefits. Anyone reading this has likely fallen into that 54 percent at some point during their careers. There could be a number of reasons for this, but more often than not, employees feel they can’t take time off—and actually enjoy it—because there’s just too much work to do. Or out of the fear that they’ll come back to an avalanche of work to sift through.
But paid-time-off benefits exist for a reason: They give employees a chance to relax and avoid falling off the employee burnout cliff. Whether you decide to make taking time off a company policy or if, as a manager, it’s simply something you strongly encourage your team to take advantage of throughout the year, help employees understand that the world won’t come to an end if they’re out of the office for a week or two. And reiterate that it’s a paid benefit, as part of their compensation package, that they are more than entitled to use.
Now, if you’re seeing an employee demonstrate some of the warning signs of burnout, be sure to encourage vacation time to give them an opportunity to check out for a bit. But knowing that taking time off might create even more stress for some people, gift a long weekend or institute company policies like “birthdays off” to make time off feel like less of a major commitment. You know your team has been working really hard over the past year. Reward them with the thing they likely need most: time away from their computers.
Don’t let employee burnout become the status quo
The moral of the story here is fairly straightforward: The COVID-19 pandemic has put a tremendous amount of strain on employees, blurring the boundaries of personal and professional life in ways we haven’t seen before. This is contributing to greater incidents of employee burnout and, in some cases, tarnishing the once positive relationships that some employees had with their companies pre-pandemic.
Although employee burnout is a very complicated matter, as you see above there are a number of things you can do as HR leaders and managers to prevent employee burnout from becoming endemic within your organization. If anything, it just requires you to take a closer look at employee wellbeing and be attuned to the struggles your employees might be facing today. It has been a tough year for sure—and the path out of the pandemic will likely be dotted with a few more unexpected challenges. Just be there for your employees; they need your support and guidance right now a lot more than you probably even know.