“My my, hey hey … it’s better to burnout than to fade away.” These widely quoted lyrics by the Godfather of Grunge, Neil Young, give pause for thought. Would we really rather burnout on the job than fade away into retirement and the alumni records of our employers? Probably not.
Stress is a formidable foe in the work world. It jeopardizes the health of employees and the organizations they work for. A paper posted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) on their website refers to a number of studies indicating:
- 40 percent of employees report their job is very or extremely stressful and 25 percent of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives
- 75 percent of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago
- Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor-more so than even financial problems or family problems
In a Harvard Business Review article, Employee Burnout is a Problem with the Company, Not the Person, the author reports psychological and physical problems of stressed-out employees is estimated to cost $125 billion to $190 billion a year in healthcare spending in the U.S. with the cost to organizations calculated to be much higher when factoring in turnover, absenteeism and productivity impacts.
CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) define job stress or employee burnout as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.
“Stress sets off an alarm in the brain, which responds by preparing the body for defensive action. The nervous system is aroused and hormones are released to sharpen the senses, quicken the pulse, deepen respiration, and tense the muscles. This response (sometimes called the fight or flight response) is important because it helps us defend against threatening situations…. But when stressful situations go unresolved, the body is kept in a constant state of activation, which increases the rate of wear and tear to biological systems. Ultimately, fatigue or damage results, and the ability of the body to repair and defend itself can become seriously compromised. As a result, the risk of injury or disease escalates.”
The many faces of employee burnout
What employee burnout looks like varies from individual and environment. Be on the look-out for employees who show an increased lack of interest or disconnect with work, or team members who seem to be tuned out, forgetful, unable to concentrate, more prone to making mistakes. Tell-tale signs can include emotional, mental and physical exhaustion. Early red flags might be puffy or dark circled eyes, a dull complexion, rapid weight changes, a gloomy or blank facial expression, neglect in personal appearance, a change in personality or withdrawal from interactions when typically social and lively.
From an organizational or departmental level increased sick leave, absenteeism, tardiness, and accidents are measurable indicators something’s amiss.
Causes of burnout range from personal stress thresholds to work-induced situations often beyond the control of employees. Recognizing sources of stress is a first step toward resolution. How many of these root causes exist in your workplace?
- Unrealistic deadlines
- Heavy workloads, infrequent breaks, long hours, shiftwork, too much responsibility, too many “hats to wear”
- Conflicting or uncertain job expectations
- Repetitive routines with little meaning, few skill requirements and little sense of control
- Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions (crowding, noise, poor air quality)
- Micromanagement leading to feelings that every tiny movement is controlled and monitored
- Lack of involvement in decision-making
- Low levels of support or help from supervisors and co-workers
- Work/life imbalance, a lack of family-friendly policies
- Job insecurity, unexpected changes, limited opportunities for personal development
- Digital pressures to be accessible 24/7
- Multi-tasking: switching to a new task while still in the middle of another has been shown to increase the time it takes to finish both tasks by 25%. A Microsoft study found it takes people an average of 15 minutes to return to an important project after an e-mail interruption.
- Meetings, meetings, and more meetings: in one company cited by Harvard Business Review the average manager was losing one day a week to email and other electronic communications and two days a week to meetings.
Eight strategies to minimize and manage employee burnout
Recognizing the root cause of employee burnout is one thing, managing and preventing workplace stress is another. “Certain problems, such as a hostile work environment,” says NIOSH, “may be pervasive in the organization and require company-wide interventions. Other problems such as excessive workload may exist only in some departments and thus require more narrow solutions. Still other problems may be specific to certain employees calling instead for stress management or employee assistance interventions.”
Use these 8 individual and situational strategies to reduce the effects of stressful working conditions in your organization:
1. Build a general awareness about job stress
Teach employees from the C-suite to the front lines and all points in between about the nature and sources of stress, the effects of stress on health, and personal skills to reduce stress (i.e. time management, deep breathing, yoga and other relaxation exercises).
2. Secure top management commitment and support
Executives need to own their role in creating employee burnout. Once your leadership team confronts the problem organizational measures can be used to address issues. Executives can also work on establishing new cultural norms – around time, for instance, making clear everyone’s time is precious.
3. Find out what stresses your employees
Ask for employee involvement to help identify and tackle burnout problems. Hold group discussions with employees and managers, together. Conduct an employee engagement survey to measure perceptions of job conditions, stress, health, and safety. Collect and analyze data to identify problem locations and stressful job conditions.
4. Create a less stressful – more relaxed, positive, supportive work environment
Make your workplace more peaceful. Provide opportunities for social interaction among employees, encourage a supportive coworker network. Recognize employees for good work. Ensure workloads are in line with capabilities and resources (remembering not to overburden high performing talent just because they seem to have the drive and bandwidth to take on more and more and more). Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation, and opportunities for employees to use and grow their skills. Create opportunities for employees to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs. When stress levels are overwhelming, remind your employees it’s okay to step away – to go for a walk, have a coffee, take a moment to stretch, meditate and breathe. Even a non-work related conversation with colleagues can help refresh.
5. Know the personality traits of your employees
Teach managers to figure out which members on their teams are more sensitive to criticism, and who tends to be skeptical, a perfectionist or high achiever (traits that can make a person more prone to feeling they’re never good enough, or more affected by a loss of control or failure). Know what strategies are best for these kinds of personalities.
6. Lead by example
Nobody wants to appear less committed than their boss, especially if there are job security worries. When employees notice their managers take a few minutes away from work to rejuvenate, they’re more comfortable and inclined to do the same. And to paraphrase Forrest Gump, kindness is as kindness does. Create a caring and supportive team by being a caring and supportive leader.
7. Address excessive collaboration
Government environments are notorious for excessive collaboration – too many decision makers, too many bureaucratic hoops. Endless rounds of meetings and conference calls alongside tortoise-slow decision making are red flags your organization has an excessive collaboration problem. Adjust organization structures and routines by looking at the number of decision-makers and steps in your org chart. A proliferation of yay or naysayers is a sign of unnecessary organizational complexity and indicates you’ve got organizational speedbumps that are slowing down action. Redundancy and duplication of effort steals organizational time and energy.
8. Use workplace analytics tools
Map the places in your organization where too much time is spent in meetings, emails or online collaboration. Use this information to target changes in specific groups and functions; reduce the organizational drag that drains productivity and introduce reconfigured workflows to avoid employee burnout.