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How to Fix the Culture Mistakes That Lead to Employee Burnout

Employee Burnout

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A Guide for Reversing Employee Burnout through Culture Transformation

We tend to treat burnout and low employee engagement as an isolated problem that we address one case at a time. We also tend to think of burnout as an individual problem, solvable by “learning to say no,” more yoga, better breathing techniques, practicing resilience” — and the self-help list goes on. 


But evidence is mounting that applying one-off band-aid solutions to a rapidly evolving ‘occupational phenomenon’ may be harming, not helping, the battle. With “burnout” now officially recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), the responsibility for managing it has shifted away from the individual and towards the organization. According to WHO, burnout is characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.


What research shows is that burnout and low engagement are actually signs of deeper workplace culture challenges at play — including communication, transparency, and change management issues.


In fact, in a 2019 Human Capital Institute study about change, 83% of respondents indicated: “As a whole, my organization is in a state of constant change; priorities and strategies are continually shifting.” Given the impacts of COVID-19 last year, it’s safe to assume that number is now nearing 100%, making it more important than ever for organizations to stay on top of emerging trends, best practices, and innovative ideas.


Leaders take note: It’s now on you to build a burnout strategy…and it starts with culture. The good news is that there are research-based and practical things you can start taking today — read more in our new eBook: 6 Culture Shifts to Reduce Burnout Among Remote & Hybrid Teams.

The Burning Cost of Burnout

Factors like overwork or insufficient resources play a role in burnout, but according to Christina Maslach, of University of California, Berkeley, and Michael Leiter, at Saint Mary’s University, it’s at least as important to focus on fairness, transparency, and purpose in the workplace. 


Comparing workers to cucumbers in vinegar, Maslach said: “We should be trying to identify and analyze the critical components of ‘bad’ situations in which many good people function. Imagine investigating the personality of cucumbers to discover why they had turned into sour pickles without analyzing the vinegar barrels in which they had been submerged.”


Burnout is undeniably costly. While individuals with full-blown cases can lose months of wages and carry the burden of expensive mental health interventions, more than half of all professionals fall somewhere on the burnout continuum. Burnout increases risk of coronary disease and type II diabetes, is associated with lower heart rate variability—generally understood to be indicative of reduced worse health and aging—and there have been studies of telomeres (protective caps at the end of chromosomes) that indicate telomere shortening usually associated with biological aging. 


Burnout also has neurological implications, associated with thinning in the prefrontal cortex, giving people less capacity for decision-making and implicating memory, attention, and emotional regulation. And beyond the physical implications of burnout, there are significant economic and social costs: Beyond the cost of treating burnout, research indicates severe consequences for burnout on relationships, especially our closest relationships. A partner of someone who burns out is at higher risk for burnout themselves, especially given compassion fatigue. 


Burnout costs organizations at a rate comparable to cancer, at $172.8 billion in losses a year. One survey noted that “95 percent of human resource leaders admit employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention” and another reported workplace stress caused between $125 million and $190 billion in additional healthcare spending annually. And that was before the pandemic.  


Burnout’s Dirty Little Secret

How can we stop blaming cucumbers for becoming pickles? How do we mitigate the acidity in the environment? Individuals can’t yoga or meditate their way out of burnout. Heightening pressure on already-stressed individuals to “fix themselves” only perpetuates the cycles of stress. What’s worse, we — as employees — often don’t talk about why we feel burned out — so despite feeling like we need to keep it a secret, organization-level interventions are needed.


Team-Level Causes

  • Underlying team structures, such as the size of the team, how they collaborate, and how they get things done

  • Atmosphere created within the team, such as the degree to which people communicate openly and are able to take risks


Organizational Causes

  • Level of transparency in the organization, such as how readily leadership shares significant information with employees

  • Organizational structures, such as role clarity


With a dive deeper into the underlying root causes of burnout, we’ll find ourselves on a path to improving it.


  • Unclear Requirements: When it’s not clear to team members how to succeed, it’s harder for them to be confident, enjoy their work, and feel they’re doing a good job. If the job description isn’t explained clearly, if the requirements are constantly changing and hard to understand, or if expectations are otherwise unclear, workers are at higher risk of burnout.

  • Impossible Requirements: Sometimes it’s just not possible to do a job as it’s explained. If a job’s responsibilities exceed the amount of time given to complete them properly, for example, it’s really not possible to do the job well. Workers will put in a lot of effort and never quite feel successful, which also leaves them at risk for burnout.

  • High-Stress Times With No “Down” Times: Many jobs and industries have “crunch times” where workers must work longer hours and handle a more intense workload for a period. This can actually help people feel invigorated if the extra effort is recognized, appropriately compensated, and limited. It starts becoming problematic when “crunch time” occurs year-round and there’s no time for workers to recover.

  • Big Consequences for Failure: People make mistakes; we’re human. However, when there are dire consequences to the occasional mistake, like the risk of a lawsuit, for example, the overall work experience becomes much more stressful, and the risk of burnout goes up. Those in law or healthcare often have higher rates of burnout because of the potential consequences.

  • Lack of Personal Control: People tend to feel excited about what they’re doing when they are able to creatively decide what needs to be done and come up with ways of handling problems that arise. Generally speaking, workers who feel restricted and unable to exercise personal control over their environment and daily decisions tend to be at greater risk for burnout.

  • Lack of Recognition: It’s difficult to work hard and never be recognized for one’s accomplishments. Awards, public praise, bonuses and other tokens of appreciation and acknowledgement of accomplishment go a long way in keeping morale high. Where accolades are scarce, burnout is a risk.

  • Poor Communication: Poor communication in a company can cause or exacerbate some of these problems, like unclear job expectations or little recognition. When an employee has a problem and can’t properly discuss it with someone who is in a position to help, this can lead to feelings of low personal control. Also, when companies lack formal internal communications and ways of disseminating salient information, employees are left wondering and feeling unstable — compounded over time, it can be a contributing factor.


Cultural Shifts Needed to Curb Burnout

It is essential that companies adapt to reflect the unique needs of a workforce navigating the challenges brought on by Covid-19 and create cultures which value the whole individual, not simply the sum of their efforts. Below are ways to make broader-scale culture shifts that retain your employees.  


Sustainable Workloads

Workload is often one of the top reasons employees cite when feeling burned out. Despite some reports showing that productivity went up as teams transitioned into remote work, leaders must not take it as a clear invitation to increase workloads. For many, throwing themselves into work was one way to cope with the vast unknowns which have characterized this year, and productivity levels may dip simply because they’ve been firing so hot for so long. 

It’s also important to consider competing challenges employees may be facing, such as childcare or Zoom fatigue, and assign tasks and the complexity of the workload based on your assessment and each employee’s abilities. 

Performance Expectations

High levels of stress due to performance expectations can often be solved by analyzing your teams in the current context. The abrupt shift to virtual teamwork created a lot of strain for individuals, and the pressures on teams will continue as companies shift their focus to how, if, and when to bring employees back to the office — or completely transition its workforce model.

Evaluate the makeup and status of your organization’s teams, giving consideration to both tasks and people. Are their objectives still relevant and are their timelines appropriate? Are you spreading certain individuals too thin by placing them on unnecessary teams? Or are there teams who need more resources to work more effectively? Approaching performance with curiosity can help organizations better identify problems and ease the pressure to perform. 

Additionally, giving employees clear priorities can help them focus on what’s most important and balance their responsibilities. Ensure your teams have a solid understanding of goals or deadlines they’re expected to hit and feel empowered to weigh in on those expectations.  

Balance

With the boundaries between work and home blurring more than ever, cultivating a culture that prioritizes rest is critical. Rest goes hand in hand with innovation, creativity and results; however, the pandemic has made traditional travel fraught with challenges, if not impossible. Most employees continue to work with no vacation in sight and forget they can still use their paid time off, even if there’s nowhere to go. Remind them of the importance of taking a break. 

It’s also important to adapt your notion of what constitutes a workday. For some, traditional work hours may still fit with a working-from-home landscape, while for others, a less-traditional schedule may do wonders for their wellbeing. Create ways for your teams to reflect on when they work best and adapt their workflow. Are they most inspired in the evenings after the kids are in bed? Do they need a couple hours between meetings to give themselves time to recharge? Be open to new timelines and structures, and lead by example. 

Additionally, the increased reliance on virtual communications and home offices means that for many, it is more difficult to unplug and turn work off. Ask employees what rest looks like for them in this new landscape. Is it having a day of no meetings? Having cutoff times for phone calls? These small steps can be crucial in ensuring that your teams have the time and space they need to recharge.   

Build employee commitment by actively encouraging feedback

During any period of rapid change, all employees need to understand the company’s future vision and direction. An unknown future can make employees feel very unsafe and insecure. It could also lead them to imagine and predict outcomes that may (or may not) happen. Creating a culture of trust, transparency and openness is critical to reducing the stresses felt by today’s workforce. Last year was filled with uncertainties, so being open with your teams about the organization’s return-to-work plans and pivots in structure or projections can help give them a sense of control when it comes to childcare planning, personal financial decisions, and how they prioritize their tasks. With clear, regular updates from leadership, organizations can boost morale and increase employee engagement, as well as help their teams feel empowered to make well-informed decisions for themselves and their families. 

 

Employees’ thoughts about work then become dominated by these fears. However, workers are reassured when their leaders encourage them to give feedback about new goals and strategies. They are also more likely to feel their thoughts are valued. And they will be more likely to commit to achieving new goals.

The American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence outlined the importance of communicating to prevent burnout, recommending “regular, ongoing opportunities to provide feedback to management.” Doing this allows leaders to recognize when it may be time to dial demands back and expand resources, such as child-care assistance and increased wellness and mental health support.  

Connection & Engagement

One of the toughest challenges currently facing companies is how to help mitigate their employees’ feelings of isolation. Feeling disconnected can compound stresses due to workload and performance, and with many organizations still fully remote or transitioning to remote-first, leaders must find new ways of inspiring authentic connection. Finding ways to allow for connection not related to workload is key. For some organizations, hosting virtual happy hours, trivia nights, and even karaoke parties have been innovative ways they’ve created a culture of online fun. Slack can also be used for more than productivity — consider starting a channel that invites people to share birthdays, posts pictures of pets and funny WFH moments, and of course, share memes.  

 

Practice active listening to spot employee concerns before they impact team collaboration

Disgruntled employees often talk to each other. And this can create a subculture of resistance and poor performance. However, not all employees are willing to talk about their issues with their leaders, even though these issues may occupy a loud place on the office grapevine. By listening actively and compassionately to employee complaints, leaders can identify potential problems before they begin to affect team collaboration.

 

Create an honest, fair, and equitable culture across all levels

Office politics can make work highly stressful. And they can get worse when people are working remotely, without face-to-face conversations. Problematic office politics can also violate your organization’s code of ethics and potentially expose the organization to legal problems. Strive in policy and practice to treat all employees honestly, fairly, and equitably.


Nothing can happen until organizations first acknowledge the circumstances. By choosing to not proceed with business as usual, leaders can generate responsive strategies with the capacity to increase employee satisfaction and retention, and improve performance. From here, you have to know who you are as an organization in order to identify how to improve it. The results are happy, healthier employees — and stronger, better performing organizations — it’s a win-win!


So whether you’re a leader looking to solve burnout as your biggest workplace culture problem or one who knows you’ll only be as successful as your teams are engaged, download our latest eBook for deeper guidance and advice on how to make the culture shifts that can help reduce the risk of burnout.

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