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How Leaders Can Alleviate Workplace Burnout

October 18, 2022 Employee Experience
Michelle Hawley Freelance Editor and Writer
By Michelle Hawley LinkedIn

Wellness at work has been a big topic as of late. Many companies have redesigned their employee benefits programs to offer such perks as extra vacation and personal days, in-office yoga, on-site massage therapists, quiet pods and more. But are these initiatives working?

Research shows wellness programs cost businesses in the US about $8 billion per year. Yet, they’ve had no impact on overall health, sleep quality or nutrition, according to the data. They’ve also failed to improve basic workplace metrics like absenteeism, job performance and employee retention.

Burnout: A Common Workplace Problem

One big problem today's workplace wellness programs are trying — and failing — to address is workplace burnout. Burnout is a feeling of emotional and physical exhaustion that often leads to a reduced sense of purpose or personal identity. Some signs of burnout include:

  • Ongoing exhaustion.
  • Disengagement or detachment.
  • A cynical or negative outlook.
  • Self-doubt.
  • Procrastination.
  • A feeling of being overwhelmed.

But how big of an issue is workplace burnout anyway? It turns out it's pretty big.

According to a Deloitte survey of 1,000 full-time US employees, 77% said they experienced burnout at their current job, and more than half said they’ve felt burned out more than once.

And when it comes to how companies are responding, nearly 70% of employees feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout, and 21% said their companies have no programs or initiatives to prevent this problem.

For organizations that want healthy, happy and productive employees, a plan for alleviating burnout is a must — and current initiatives, though well-intentioned, may not be the solution.

“As businesses, it’s our responsibility to ensure that our workplaces support employees’ wellbeing and that conversations around both burnout and mental health are more broadly normalized and encouraged,” said Jon Flaherty, CEO of Revolent, Americas.

Related Article: How Approaches to Mental Health in the Workplace Have Changed

What Causes Workplace Burnout?

According to Shauna Moran, founder and managing director of Operate Remote and author of the upcoming book, “Managing Employee Burnout,” there’s more than one primary cause as to why people are burning out.

Instead, she said, it’s usually a combination of things that can include:

  • Unfair treatment at work.
  • An unmanageable workload.
  • Unreasonable time pressure.
  • Lack of role clarity.
  • Lack of communication/support from leadership.
  • Feeling unable to disconnect and take a break.

“We need to stop looking at burnout, especially when it’s present in several members of our team over time, as an individual problem,” said Moran. “It’s a systemic problem. And it has many, many root causes.”

And many of those causes come down to leaders and their influence. It therefore only makes sense that leaders take a proactive approach to dealing with burnout symptoms and preventing them from occurring in the first place.

Related Article: The 4-Day Workweek Won't Cure Burnout (at Least Not Yet)

6 Ways Leadership Can Help Prevent and Manage Burnout

Creating a healthy workplace doesn’t have to be a chore. Leaders can set up initiatives that not only improve employees’ lives but their own lives too.

Let’s dive into some actions leadership can take to prevent work exhaustion and burnout.

1. Clarify Roles and Expectations

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s still worth mentioning: make sure employees know exactly what their roles are, where they fit within the organization and what you expect of them regarding output and timeframes.

This step is especially important in remote work environments, Moran said, as many employees aren’t clear on what they need to achieve or what’s expected of them, leading to productivity anxiety. “It can be really supportive to just help [employees] prioritize their workload and focus on quality over quantity,” she said.

2. Schedule One-on-One Time

The top driver of burnout, according to Deloitte's research, is lack of support or recognition from leadership. So, taking the time to speak to employees one-on-one can make a big difference.

And when you’re offering this support, Moran said, ensure employees (even remote ones) can see your body language, as it’s a primary part of how we communicate.

3. Create Manageable Workloads

The number two driver of burnout, still according to Deloitte, is unrealistic deadlines or results expectations. “Employees want to work on quality projects and not feel rushed all the time,” said Moran.

Unfortunately, understaffing often means leadership offloading more responsibilities on the employees who stick around. But these ever-increasing workloads can lead to burnout and, in worst case scenarios, workers who seek employment elsewhere.

Leaders need to sit down and think about the work they’re handing off to employees. Is the workload manageable for one person? Is the timeframe for completion reasonable? Can you invest in technology to reduce these workloads?

4. Set Up Stress Assessments

Both Flaherty and Moran recommend that leaders perform stress assessments with employees. These assessments can start with a questionnaire that asks about the work culture, demands and employee roles, among other things. Leaders can then pinpoint which employees might be facing burnout and take further action.

Leaders can also have sit-downs with individual team members to determine who is facing heightened stress — and why. Figure out what’s going on in the lives of your employees (things going on in their personal lives, unhealthy habits) and what’s under the leader's control (unmanageable workload, lack of clarity), Moran said. “A leader’s job is to essentially be an investigator and look at what changed, when has it changed,” she said.

5. Create an Open Culture

In some workplaces, mental health — including burnout — is taboo. Employees don’t want to talk about it for fear of being judged or potentially missing out on promotions.

The conversational climate around mental health in the workplace is important, said Flaherty. “Leaders can play a major role here in setting the tone for open dialogue throughout an organization by being transparent themselves.”

Leaders must start and continuously encourage the conversation around wellness. Talk about the mental and physical symptoms of burnout.  Support healthy habits. And, above all, make sure employees know they can open up without fear of consequences.

6. Lead by Example

Moran said many leaders promote wellness and healthy habits but don’t actually take their own advice. “That means that their team is never going to do it because leaders have a high level of influence over their team.”

Leaders need to take steps to look after themselves, whether it’s taking a day off, taking a vacation or even going for a walk. “Self-care isn’t just a nice to have anymore,” said Moran. “It’s a necessity for all of us working in this fast-paced, crazy world.”

And the benefit of leaders taking the first step, besides setting a good example for the team? Healthy, happy leaders will be able to more effectively guide and support their team in these conversations, because they’re going to feel better themselves, Moran said.

Related Article: How Companies Can Support Mental Health as Employees Return to the Office

Burnout Doesn’t Have to Be a Workplace Norm

In today's always-on world, we’ve all essentially accepted feeling burnt out as a common reality. It happens to everyone, right?

But burnout comes with real costs. It takes a toll on physical and mental health. It creates a drag on creativity and productivity. And in the workplace, it can lead to lower quality work, unhappy employees and increased turnover.

Leadership can take steps to make real changes in the workplace and, if not eliminate it completely, reduce levels of burnout and create a culture of conversation that makes employees feel heard.  

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