Technology and innovation was supposed to make our jobs and work easier. Instead they’ve made it easier to get overworked and stressed, to literally carry our work around with us everywhere. And the weight is taking its toll.
A recent Gallup study found that about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout at work, with 23% of respondents reporting feeling burnt out very often or always. The high rate of burnout in millennials suggests both that it’s becoming a bigger aspect of our workplace culture, and that those early career positions – like those many millennials are in now – are more susceptible to it than those in management and higher up within organizations.
In other words, positions in which employees have less control over their workloads, company culture, and day-to-day schedules might put employees at a higher risk of burnout, and when they’re in no place to address it and make a culture-wide change.
Instead it’s up to you, their manager.
Because like it or not, burnout throughout the company is management’s responsibility.
A year-long survey by Blind revealed the top sources of employee burnout at tech companies, and they all boil down to poor leadership and management. Of the answers, 22.9% directly cited poor leadership as a main source of burnout. But other top factors, like work overload, toxic culture, and lack of career control, are all ultimately caused by poor leadership themselves.
So in most cases of burnout, it’s less likely that the individual has done something wrong themselves, and more that this problem is a systemic part of your company’s culture. That means it’s up to people who set and lead the internal culture drive for its change as well. It’s on you.
Below are a few important culture changes to implements that will help address current employee burnout and prevent it in the future.
1. Make communication feel safe
First things first, employees need to feel comfortable talking about problems in that middle space between work issues and personal problems. Topics like burnout and stress feel very personal, which can make employees nervous about bringing them up in the workplace. They can feel isolated, leading to feelings of imposter syndrome and further burnout.
But as noted above, almost everyone in the modern workplace has experienced burnout before, and it’s not a personal problem employees will be able to overcome alone. Opening up lines of communication around mental health in the workplace will help your workers see that.
It’s crucial that they feel safe discussing these topics at work, both with other employees as well as with managers and executives.
Short-term, initiating the difficult conversation with someone exhibiting signs of burnout is an important first step. Talking to them about their stress might uncover opportunities to lessen it, plus having the chance to discuss their current emotions can help lessen stress in and of itself.
Long-term, shifting your company culture to address the current stigma around stress and other mental health issues will be important in fostering conversations about burnout. Openness and transparency around stress, emotions, and company culture should all be encouraged.
It requires a bigger commitment to addressing mental health in the workplace, but it will be worth it for your overall employee satisfaction, as well as efficiency. For example, the CDC reports that patients with depression miss an average of 4.8 workdays and suffer 11.5 days of reduced productivity over a three-month period. It’s easy to see how prolonged burnout can lead to that.
2. Prevent overwork with clear boundaries
Making sure employees feel comfortable talking about and addressing burnout is a first step in moving away from a burnout-fueled company culture. However, in order to prevent it in the first place, leaders need to make more drastic shifts to the way the company is run.
For example, creating guidelines around employee workloads to prevent burnout caused by overwork.
This has two benefits. First, it helps leaders and managers to have set boundaries that they need to stay within when planning projects and assignments. Second, it helps send a message to your SMB’s employees that they don’t need to be as busy as possible all the time in order to impress the bosses. They’ll know that you value wellness and balance as well as work performance, reducing self-imposed pressure.
Some examples of guidelines and boundaries that can reduce workplace stress include:
Discouraging checking work email accounts outside of work, or adding the account to mobile devices
Limiting how many large scale projects any employee is part of at a given time
Creating rules for meetings to reduce excessive collaboration and inefficient meetings
Providing incentives for using paid time off, as 52% of Americans have unused vacation days due to reasons like workloads being too heavy
It can also be helpful to relax other guidelines that may be contributing to stress and burnout. For example, offering flexible work arrangements or remote work arrangements can lead to increased productivity, less stress, and better work-life balance.
3. Define systems that make decisions easy
Finally, be sure to develop clear systems for your company, both around everyday work tasks as well as burnout- and wellness-related procedures. As found in the Blind study mentioned previously, employees cite unclear direction as a major cause of stress.
This lack of organization and clarity within your company creates additional work for your employees.
For example, systems and processes for the most common tasks team members complete can reduce decision fatigue and time spent “figuring things out.” Lack of systems can also lead to conflict between employees and increased risk of mistakes, which can cause great stress regardless of how overworked someone is. And additionally, if your company’s management is not skilled in systems and project management, it becomes much easier to unknowingly overload employees due to common occurrences like scope creep.
However, creating processes and systems that team members can easily follow for their most frequent and important work reduces the amount of friction involved in the task. This both reduces the amount of time it takes, which reduces workloads, as well as the amount of confusion or questioning involved in a task, which reduces stress.
Change the culture from the top
Ultimately, all of these changes come down to creating a workplace more open about stress and more organized around workloads. By shifting your company culture to one that discourages overwork and encourages systems and open communication, you can slowly address the roots of employee burnout and prevent it in the future. This will always be preferable to addressing burnout itself as your team members experience it.
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