Last year, Gallup published a three-part series on burnout, based on a 7,500-person study of full-time American workers. The analytics and advisory company found five factors that correlate most strongly with burnout: Unfair treatment, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from managers and unreasonable time pressure.
Gallup also found that employees who described themselves as very often or always burned out were more likely to feel less confident in their performance, leave their current employer and take a sick day.
This year, World Health Organization (WHO) weighed in and announced that it was about “to embark on developing evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.” In a related dispatch, the organization also noted that lost productivity due to depression and anxiety costs the global economy $1 trillion a year, and “workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.”
I’ve observed an upswing in the discussion of burnout recently. But the media often uses “burnout” as a catch-all phrase to describe extreme stress attributed to generational and socio-economic pressure, discrimination and a host of other factors. However, WHO describes burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.”
With that in mind, what can you, as a leader, do about burnout in the workplace? Gallup has several suggestions for managers, which emphasize the role management plays in employees’ lives. A few of these recommendations include listening to your employees’ needs, encouraging teamwork, making work purposeful and more.
These sound simple in theory, but they’re abstract in practice. How, for example, do we make work purposeful? How do we understand what an employee needs? To make these suggestions concrete, I believe we need to understand the one concept they all share: They show respect.
Respect takes many forms and can include saying “please” and “thank you,” smiling hello and turning off your phone to fully engage during meetings. But it can also include planning an employee’s career growth, going out of your way to offer praise, learning a little bit about a culture or way of life. WHO considers respect as a “fundamental human need” because it recognizes that everyone is important. When you make the effort to build relationships, even formal ones, that’s what you’re doing, too.
As the CEO of a marketing and advisory firm, I’ve learned firsthand the importance of showing respect and taking actionable steps to prevent employee burnout. Below are three of my tips on how to get started:
Show you care.
If you have an in-person office, begin face-to-face meetings with a few kind words. If your office is too large to see staff regularly, seek employees out independently from time to time. For example, call out a job well done while you’re passing by or via a quick email, take five minutes by the coffee machine to make small talk about a project or plan to acknowledge something a worker did at your next all-hands meeting.
With remote teams, make a warm connection by starting the small talk before the virtual meeting. The key in all cases is to take the time. Remotely, it can also be useful to create a dedicated channel — through Slack, BaseCamp or whatever communications or project management tool you use — for employees to engage in “water cooler talk.” Make it informal and set the tone as the manager. The point is to communicate that employees can be themselves, and there is a place where they can be heard.
Once you’ve forged a direct friendly relationship with your staff, use recognitions, incentives and special compensation to form rituals and, ultimately, a positive company culture. Maybe an “employee of the year” award is worthwhile in your company. Or, perhaps an incentive to meet a deadline early will suit your culture. Achievement bonuses and other benefits that reward performance or show appreciation cost little but contribute enormously to morale.
Whatever approach you choose, make sure the incentive process is clear to everyone, available to everyone and accessible to everyone. Codify the process in your employee handbook and make it clear how someone qualifies. Following through on a promotion schedule, an employee referral bonus or a certificate of achievement builds trust by showing employees that they can take you at your word — and rely on the incentives to materialize if they take the steps you have outlined.
Every hire should be considered an investment. Keeping that worker engaged is another way to ensure hiring them pays off. Learn what motivates employees with regular one-on-one check-ins. Make a point of systemizing feedback and coaching. Quarterly check-ins linked to key performance indicators also serve both the business and the employees.
Always emphasize employees’ goals, opportunities for growth and how they can be linked to the company’s goals in one-on-one meetings. This provides employees with a clear sense of purpose, and it creates a clear structure for them to manage their own development model while also underscoring its mutual benefit.
If you have an overseas team, encourage continual education. Pay for an employee to attend a conference. Create a line item budget for every employee to use for professional development. Provide access to online courses in relevant skills. Consider matching the most promising employees to a company mentor.
The investments you make in your employees will pay off in the long run, and it’ll help keep your company running smoothly with engaged high-performers.
The Bottom Line
Research shows there are direct links among respect, engagement, productivity and morale. It stands to reason: An engaged employee whose opinion is respected and whose career development is treated as a matter of importance is going to be happier — and these happier workers experience less burnout. So, cultivate a culture of respect, and keep an eye out to make sure it keeps working for everyone.