Employee burnout doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a culmination of stress – physical or emotional – over time that results in employees feeling dispassionate, disengaged, cynical, and unproductive (just to name a few). Unfortunately, the past 16 months have presented employees with plenty of triggers that, by now, have resulted in historically high levels of burnout.
And yet, a whopping 85% of employees don’t think their company is doing enough to address the issue.
In a recent webinar, our Head of People & Culture at Ally.io, Rebecca Clements, gathered people leaders from Ally partners and customers to discuss ways their organizations have been tackling this phenomenon.
Read on for 11 strategies for managing employee burnout during these trying times.
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“Empower your managers and people leaders to have authentic conversations with employees and allow people to be human,” says Megan, Director of People & Culture at Apeel Sciences.
Remind them to start meetings with a simple, “how are you?” instead of diving straight into business. Beyond that, encourage leaders to model the behavior you want to see take hold across the organization. Want people to take PTO? Then get your leaders to unplug from time to time. Want people speaking honestly about their mental health? Then give leaders the tools and guidance to start these conversations with their teams.
Don’t ignore the reality that emotions can and will contribute to company culture, employee decision making, and productivity. Instead, find a way to hold space for emotion and feelings within the organization. Doing this, Stacey Carroll, Director of Human Resources at TKK says, “eliminate[s] the shame…that comes with feeling like ‘I’m the only one [experiencing burnout], everyone else already has this figured out.’”
Melissa Isaza, Director of People & Culture at Unbounce, recommends companies “create a common language and name feelings that people can feel connected to so they don’t feel alone.”
Her company, Unbounce, has adopted a common language from Conscious Leadership Group, where employees share whether they’re feeling above or below “the line”—below often aligning with feelings of burnout. This practice allows employees to be honest about how they’re showing up to work in that moment, without having to divulge or specify potentially private feelings.
Finally, it can be incredibly powerful to simply remind employees that burnout isn’t failure. It’s a natural consequence of prolonged, demanding activity that would cause even the most amazing, rock star employee to feel stressed and – ultimately – burned out.
According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the major reasons for employee burnout stems from unclear job expectations. It makes sense – if you don’t understand how your work is connected to organization goals, or if you’re not even clear about what’s expected of you, then it follows that you’d feel disillusioned, unsatisfied, and lack the energy to be productive (all classic signs of burnout).
In 2020, 29% of employees surveyed for Asana’s Anatomy of Work said a lack of clarity on tasks and roles was a top factor fueling their burnout. The solution? 34% said the main thing that will motivate them to do their best work in 2021 is knowing how their work contributes to the company’s overall mission.
That is the power of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). When organization goals are clearly laid out and cascade down to the individual (as is done in Ally), employees will know exactly how and what they’re expected to contribute, and by when. This promotes ownership of their piece of the business and gives employees a reason to work hard because they can see exactly how their work connects to the company’s mission.
[Read More: What is OKR?]
Encourage your employees to take a well-deserved break. Melissa suggests renaming paid time off (PTO) to reduce the stigma around taking a mental health day. Instead of differentiating “sick” and “mental health” days, combine the two into simply “wellness” days, so employees are empowered to utilize their time off to take care of their physical and mental wellbeing. To ensure they can actually reap the benefits of this time off and truly unplug, Derek Schlickler, Chief Financial Officer at Quantivate, emphasizes the need to put support in place to get the work done on their behalf.
Can’t totally revamp your PTO policy? Start small! Rebecca Clements, Head of People & Culture at Ally.io, suggests embracing holidays that span across your distributed workforce. Here at Ally, we’ve adopted two Labor Days: India’s and the United States’.
BONUS TIP: If you have unlimited PTO, set a minimum expectation so employees don’t have to guess and stress about what’s a “normal” amount of time to take off. Just tell them!
From that same Asana survey, 46% of employees cited being overworked as a key factor fueling their burnout. Managers should be actively working to rid your organization of overwhelming workloads that lead to employee burnout. But how?
Stacey encourages her leaders to start meetings with a brainstorm of what they can get rid of, because “you’re only able to address priorities if you can also figure out what to stop doing.”
Melissa’s team takes Nora Robert’s approach to juggling it all. In a Q&A on how she balances writing and kids, the author shared a key nugget of wisdom: “the key to juggling is to know that some of the balls you have in the air are made of plastic and some are made of glass.”
Since inevitably some will drop, make sure your team knows which balls will bounce and which ones will shatter so they can prioritize accordingly.
Stacey pointed to a quote from an SHRM interview with Scott Galloway, where he maintains that “we are a long way from creating the technical equivalent of an in-person interaction, and likely will never capture the serendipity of the casual workplace interaction.”
While that may be true, we can still try to recreate the serendipity of “water cooler” talk.
Start every meeting with connection, not content – ask your colleagues how they’re doing. Is there someone you used to bump into in the hall or grab coffee with that you haven’t connected with for a while? Shoot them a message.
Megan suggests making an effort to get outside your immediate team and connect with cross-functional partners you haven’t seen in a while. These simple acts of connection can go a long way in reversing employee burnout.
Avoid Zoom fatigue by eliminating unnecessary meetings and giving your team time back for focused work. Many organizations today are blocking out meeting-free time – company-wide – on the calendar.
Apeel is so committed to this idea that they set a company-wide objective in Ally to reduce the time everyone’s spending in meetings. Employees can use their “productivity pods” to accomplish whatever needs to be done. Some days that’s work, others it’s grocery shopping. We do this at Ally, too, freeing up a few afternoons each week for folks to turn off their cameras, regain their sanity, and focus on the tasks that will help them achieve key results.
Record your meetings so employees can listen in after the fact. This can be a saving grace for parents who have to jump offline mid-afternoon to pick up kids from school or whose toddler decided to have a meltdown 2 minutes before an important call. This simple tactic comes in handy for any employee who finds themselves in a situation where life interrupts their Zoom calls.
One of the most effective ways to reduce employee burnout is embrace scheduling flexibility. Stacey reminds us of the basics: employees are individuals, and what works for one won’t work for the next.
In new research from the Harvard Business Review, 32% of employees surveyed say they never want to return to working in the office, while another 21% say they never want to spend another day working from home.
Find ways to appeal to both. For those that are thriving in the work from home environment (often employees with kids or those who have long commutes), embrace the flexibility that’s allowing them to find work-life balance. Turn 1:1 meetings into “walk and talks” so they can get their exercise while also having the conversations that need to be had. For the other 21% (often single employees or empty nesters), they’re probably craving community, so it’s important to find ways to provide meaningful connection to simulate an office environment (see the next tip!).
To combat burnout, Apeel made it a company-wide objective to implement “thoughtful investment in the whole employee – focusing on wellness and restorative programs,” says Megan. The underlying KRs included things like monthly wellness campaigns and other smaller initiatives to prioritize health.
Pro tip: Add wellness-focused objectives into your OKR mix next quarter.
Unbounce similarly prioritized wellness over the past year. They gave all employees access to Headspace, an app that promotes meditation and mindfulness, in addition to a $500 health and wellness allowance. They also hosted virtual gardening, cooking, and art classes to bring people – especially those who have been living alone during the pandemic – together in ways that feel natural.
It’s easy to slip away from best practices in a remote workplace, and yet, it’s more important than ever to double down on them. Stacey witnessed this at her organization, as managers began to revert to behaviors that didn’t align with the leadership style she knew they were capable of.
To combat this, she reminds her leaders to manage through performance, not the “green dot.” In other words, if your employees are hitting the mark, stop obsessing over whether they’re available on Slack or Teams when you are – let them take that mid-day walk. It’s probably the thing that’s stemming burnout for them right now.
Want to understand if your employees are running on empty? Check out this blog post where we share how to identify burnout and more ideas for how to address this all-too-common phenomenon.
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