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Avoid a Deep Fried Workforce

How to identify and address employee burnout and foster a culture that promotes well-being

Over the last two years, organizations have faced monumental challenges alongside historic levels of workforce upheaval. In fact, more than four million Americans left their jobs each month this year—an astonishing reality.

Burnout is the leading cause behind this Great Resignation, cited by 40% of job-changers as the reason for moving on. It’s costly to organizations both quantitatively, in terms of higher attrition, and qualitatively, driving lower engagement.

Clearly, burnout—defined by the World Health Organization as a longstanding imbalance between job demands and job resources—is an occupational hazard leaders must take seriously.

Unfortunately, methods introduced by most employers to reduce burnout don’t seem to be working. One in four employees today still report suffering the symptoms, according to McKinsey, and those who are burning out are six times more likely to say they intend to leave their employer within the next six months.

Unless we find a way to rectify systemic issues leading team members to wind up crisply deep fried, many organizations will face a rather bleak talent picture in the coming months and years.

No App for That

Employers aren’t blind to burnout or employee disengagement in general. Significant investments are being made in higher wages, broader benefits, and various types of wellness programs. The problem is that a focus on the individual—teaching team members to self-manage the pressure they face—offers only limited and temporary relief. People cannot self-care their way out of burnout.

App subscriptions, fitness stipends, employee resource groups, and various other programs designed to foster a healthier mindset may be well-intentioned but they are at best reactive. Most employers lack a proactive strategy to curtail the burnout frenzy.

To be effective, leaders must learn to identify factors within their organizations that are contributing to burnout and implement strategies to tackle the problem head-on. The good news is that success carries substantial ROI. Healthy, well-balanced employees perform better and organizations that make well-being a priority typically see higher rates of retention, greater productivity, and better job satisfaction.

Questions to Drive Change

If you’re sold on the idea of beating back the burnout, what will this commitment mean in practice? Some research-backed questions can help you navigate the challenges of reducing burnout on an organization-wide level.

Know before you go about it—identifying and fixing root causes is gritty work. But the payoff will be worth it.

Q: Do we treat employee mental health and well-being as a strategic priority?

There are only two options here, a resounding “yes!” or “uh, no.” If senior leaders cannot point clearly to how the organization is promoting mental health and well-being and the impacts of such initiatives, not enough effort has been invested. It’s time to step it up.

Start by acknowledging that there is an issue and collecting feedback to identify patterns related to burnout. Listening to employees is critical, not just to target an effective response but also to make them feel heard, an important factor itself in improving well-being.

Once your design is ready, make it part of the company’s strategic plan. But first, double-check that your program includes measurable goals for improvement so you can monitor progress, just as you would for any other high-priority objective.

Q: Do we effectively address toxic behaviors?

Toxic behaviors are the top contributor to burnout. Could your organization have a problem?

Most executives assume that toxic workplaces exist only “somewhere else.” But one in five employees reports having left a job due to a toxic culture—evidence that a careful look at our own house is always in order.

Don’t stop at snuffing out possible toxic behaviors by individuals. Also commit to building a culture grounded in values and practices that themselves serve as an antidote to the toxic workplace, things like:

  • Trust

  • Creativity

  • Collaboration

  • Connection

  • Psychological safety

Q: Do we create inclusive, supportive work environments?

Inclusion positively affects performance. A truly inclusive workplace will have systems and processes in place to help reduce conscious and unconscious bias. What’s more, leaders and team members will cast themselves as standard-bearers of inclusion, actively striving to integrate inclusive practices and behaviors into the rhythms of the business.

Executives can also play a role in reducing stigmas associated with mental struggles. By being honest about their own experience with burnout, overwork, perfectionist attitudes, insecurities, and so on, they can help team members empathize with each other and themselves when such common issues arise.

Q: Do we enable individual growth?

People want to perform well, learn, and grow in their careers. Although it may sound counterintuitive, offering team members the opportunity to stretch themselves toward meaningful goals can actually reduce burnout.

Given the accelerating talent shortages, it only makes sense for employers to invest in their own talent, grooming existing team members to fill more challenging roles. The key is to ensure that programs center on the employee, giving them a voice in what learning and development they value and would like to pursue.

Q: Do we build sustainability in our work?

We’ve all heard of work/life balance but sustainable work reaches beyond this often discussed notion. Sustainability also entails flexibility, increased autonomy, and a predictable sense of the flow and cadence of work. Leaders need to incorporate and model these elements as part of a psychologically safe environment.

Q: Are we holding leaders accountable?

Leaders must embrace the mission of improving mental health and be held accountable for results. Organizations, therefore, need to set clear expectations and offer quality training to help managers learn to conduct effective “pulse checks” on employees’ well-being. Such efforts should take place on both an informal basis, such as through one-to-one meetings, and through formal means, such as employee surveys.

Q: Do our resources serve employee needs?

Putting a wellness program in place or restructuring the work expectations-to-resources balance cannot be considered a “one and done” effort. Leaders must continually evaluate whether initiatives are serving employees’ true and evolving needs.

Assess which resources are used most frequently and determine how to make them more accessible, if necessary. And keep measuring those organizational strategies as sociocultural forces continue to shift.

Jump in the Deep End

The shallow nature of many employers’ wellness strategies is costing companies valuable time, attention, and funds without returning expected benefits. Sadly, by appearing to trivialize employees’ struggles, some of these efforts can compound burnout.

So choose to be among the rare few willing to dive in on issues of mental health and well-being. Address physical and non-physical health. Work at the individual, team, and organizational levels. Prioritize often overlooked areas, such as inclusion, connection, and growth.

There on the deep end, you’ll find opportunities to lower the flames of burnout across your organization and get employees into a much healthier flow.


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