Employee burnout – don’t do it again
In our always-on world, burnout has long been a reality. But in 2020 burnout and chronic stress became rampant as a third of U.S. employees started “living at work” and faced threats to their health, economic insecurity, and concerns for their loved ones.
Although the concept of occupational burnout originated in the 1970s, the medical community has long argued about how to define it. In 2019 the World Health Organization finally included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases, describing it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
This language acknowledged that burnout is more than just an employee problem; it is an organizational problem that requires an organizational solution.
With support from Harvard Business Review, Jennifer Moss gathered feedback from more than 1,500 respondents in 46 countries, in various sectors, roles, and seniority levels, in the fall of 2020. Sixty-seven percent of respondents worked at or above a supervisor level.
What did she learn, in a nutshell?
89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse.
85% said their well-being had declined.
56% said their job demands had increased.
62% of the people who were struggling to manage their workloads had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months.
57% of employees felt that the pandemic had a “large effect on” or “completely dominated” their work.
25% felt unable to maintain a strong connection with family, 39% with colleagues, and 50% with friends.
Only 21% rated their well-being as “good,” and a mere 2% rated it as “excellent.”
For leaders, the key learning is simple: they made things worse.
They often tried to compensate for physical distance by intensifying the scrutiny of employees’ work, or they expected people to forge ahead without acknowledging the stress that their employees (or themselves) were experiencing.
As we ease into the post-pandemic, the crisis offers lessons and best practices to not go back to the old ways, and save our employees and our companies from the personal and business cost of burnout:
Managers must learn to adjust workloads
Overwork was the most-cited reason for burnout. Research from Gallup has shown that the risk of occupational burnout increases significantly when an employee’s workweek averages more than 50 hours and rises even more substantially at 60 hours. The average workday is now 48 minutes longer compared to pre-pandemic data.
Leaders must give people more control and flexibility
The pandemic brought employees a host of new challenges. Childcare options were limited, parents were grappling with homeschooling children while working from home and dealing with increased household chores resulting from suddenly having everyone under the same roof 24/7. In the post-pandemic, employees who work fully or partially remotely will continue to face some of these challenges; and those who embrace virtual work for this flexibility will value having more control anyway.
Leaders should limit meetings and screen time
We talk about Zoom meeting burnout as if it is a new thing, but we have had meeting fatigue forever. The amount of time employees spend in meetings has increased by 13%. According to Steven Rogelberg of UNC Charlotte, who wrote The Surprising Science of Meetings, pre-Covid-19 studies showed that about 55 million meetings a day were held in the United States alone and that U.S. organizations wasted $37 billion annually because most meetings were unproductive.
Leaders must learn to recognize the extent of people’s struggles.
Leaders must create psychological safety in their organizations, so that employees feel allowed and supported to talk about their mental health at work. This means leaders themselves must lead the way and be role models for the behaviors they want to encourage. This is a challenge for many leaders, who believe they must show toughness to be respected. In fact, the opposite will happen – respect will come from showing up as an authentic leader.
Leaders must remind employees of their strategy and purpose.
Business strategy is supposed to be what unites employees around a shared purpose. As companies pivot again to post-pandemic strategies, now is the time to revisit and communicate broadly about the strategy: not only will it clarify the value proposition of the company, it will also create an anchor point and a sense of purpose for employees, and a way to connect again with their peers after a year when distance and remote work frayed social networks.
If there was an area where we don’t want to go back to the “old”, it is employee stress. Leaders can take advantage of the relative fresh start of the post-pandemic to create the right organizational environment for employees to thrive and for their organizations to avoid the cost of burnout.
Upcoming blogs will mine Line-of-SightSM execution data to provide actionable advice for leaders seeking to maximize their organization’s execution capabilities.
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