The more stressful things get, the more companies risk creating a burnout culture.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies had to radically change their business models. And in some cases, they’re still doing it with much smaller workforces. To top it off, many people are faced with a lot of personal stress outside of work—things like politics, childcare issues, and isolation-induced anxiety.
As a result, 58% of employees say they are facing burnout. So, what can leaders do to avoid contributing to burnout culture? And how can they protect themselves at the same time?
The first step is to recognize that burnout is not an individual’s maladaptive response to stress. Christina Maslach, a leader in the study of burnout, first observed that it can be an organizational phenomenon.
In May 2019, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) redefined burnout as a syndrome that “refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context…resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The W.H.O. was quite specific that burnout “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
This places part of the responsibility for avoiding burnout on not only individual employees, but also on their leaders. Based on my research-based Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC), there are 10 ways leaders can improve workplace stress.
1. 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.
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.
2. Maintain a zero-tolerance policy for ethical violations.
To start, make sure your company has an updated code of ethics. It should be a living document that influences not only what employees do, but also how they do it. Because as stress and demands increase, it becomes more likely that employees will take unethical shortcuts to achieve goals.
For example, workplace bullying may get worse under stress. You need to create a safe space for workers to report bullying without fear of retaliation. Leaders should then follow up by addressing unwanted behaviors quickly and directly.
3. Establish consistent two-way dialogue across departments and locations.
An e-newsletter or a town hall dominated by lectures from senior leaders is not a dialogue. Dialogue is a two-way channel where the messages sent are actually received by the intended recipient.
When employees feel like they can express their ideas and concerns, leaders have unleashed their employees’ creativity and potential to solve problems. And when talking with employees, leaders should listen and ask questions to make sure they understand.
4. Give employees a manageable workload and schedule.
Research has shown that burnout sets in when people consistently work 60 hours or more per week. And in the aftermath of the height of COVID, many employees still struggle to separate and balance their professional and personal responsibilities when working from home.
Some simple policy changes can do wonders. For example, limit the number of meetings. Leaders can also discourage emails or text messages during off hours—and lead by example. And before assigning a project, they should estimate the amount of time needed for each task on an employee’s project list. These changes can all help with work overload.
5. Manage employee performance with balanced metrics that consider context.
Generally, effective performance management requires specific goals that both the leader and employee agree on. But “business as usual” has been radically altered since the start of COVID. Now that working from home is a common practice, people are still figuring out what works best for them to get work done.
By considering the context around employee performance, leaders gain a more holistic view of not only what their workers are doing but also how they are doing it.
6. Give employees the resources they want to help them succeed.
Most employees know exactly what they need to perform their best. These include technological, financial, and human resources.
And as work from home increases, some workers may not be able to set up a home office that is free from distractions. Don’t expect employees to figure it out on their own. Help them adjust by providing support and best practices.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. Interact compassionately and vulnerably.
As humans, we are emotional creatures. Genetically, we’re wired to want to feel appreciated and cared for. So, leaders must consistently act in ways that show their teams they genuinely care.
Transparency and vulnerability build trust. And a culture of trust brings greater engagement, commitment, and innovation. Many workers continue to feel stress around their job security, finances, and health. A simple act of kindness and gratitude goes a long way.
10. Build trust and autonomy by being a servant leader.
Autocracy and micromanagement are outdated and ineffective. They are also especially damaging and counterproductive in today’s stressful and uncertain work environment. Servant leaders create a community focused on achieving company goals, while embracing the unique needs of each worker.
The “Dirty Little Secret” of Burnout Culture
Burnout culture continues to be the “dirty little secret” in far too many organizations. Everyone is feeling it (perhaps women more so than men). But no one wants to talk about it.
Leaders are in a tough position. They may be feeling burned out themselves, while also contributing to burnout culture. Often, they don’t want to admit their own struggles for fear of being vulnerable. As a result, their teams also don’t want to admit their feelings.
This creates a burnout spiral. And as more people leave, burnout culture accelerates.
Fortunately, leaders have the power to create a “new normal” for both themselves and their teams. They can create a work environment that can minimize stress for everyone. And the result? A win-win, collaborative environment where everyone is recognized and embraced. Where creativity can shine in pursuit of worthwhile goals.
Learn more about leadership development courses that can help leaders develop the skills to prevent burnout culture, including our microcourse developed with Dr. Puleo, "Ensuring Your Team Avoids Burnout."
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is President/CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc. A passionate advocate for the eradication of workplace burnout, she is the creator of the research-based Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC) and is currently exploring gender differences in burnout.
Beth Almes is Manager of Marketing and Communications at DDI. When she's not busy writing and editing, you'll most likely find her cooking up a storm with a spatula in hand.