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Sep 21, 2017

Every job can be stressful in its own way, but burnout takes that stress to an unhealthy, extreme level. The Mayo Clinic defines it as a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work. As workers increasingly become tied by their smartphones to their jobs at all hours of the day, stress resulting in burnout may be particularly bad for younger workers. A study by the American Psychological Association found that millennials and Gen Xers report a higher level of stress than any other generation and appear to have difficulty coping.

Burnout is becoming more widespread, but it’s a mistake for companies to accept it as the norm and not find ways to combat it. Burnout has toxic consequences, like decreased productivity, workforce turnover, and chronic exhaustion that can affect a worker’s mental and physical health. What’s more, in the recent book Time, Talent and Energy, researchers found organizations, not employees, were usually to blame when employees were unproductive, with burnout culprits including excessive collaboration, weak time management, and overloading strong performers.

So, how can leadership address burnout in their workforce and help managers identify the signs in their reports? Here are the tactics I recommend for helping to fight burnout.

Create a people-first company

Good companies value and support their employees’ overall health and wellbeing. They use people science to monitor and improve the employee experience and work-life balance. Take a comprehensive look at what you’re offering beyond salary and traditional benefits and talk to your employees about what they’d find most helpful in promoting wellness within the company.

At Sage People, we have a fitness boot camp every week and flexible working is embraced to accommodate the individual priorities of our employees. Another company I’m familiar with bought everyone Fitbits and had a competition among teams at the company to see which group could get in the most steps that month. Suddenly, it became much more commonplace for teams to schedule walking meetings outdoors, helping people to easily incorporate some much-needed sun, fresh air, and exercise into their day.

Try to get creative to find ways to encourage health and wellness within your organization.

Educate your staff on burnout warning signs

During a staff meeting, go over the signs of burnout with everyone at the company. Are employees constantly stressed, having a hard time sleeping, or struggling to focus at work? If so, encourage them to take the issue to their manager before it gets to full-fledged burnout. It’s not always easy for a manager to identify burnout, so it’s important for managers to encourage their direct reports to come forward and let them know when they’re struggling. Together, they can then develop an action plan for getting that person back on track toward a more balanced work life.

Give employees the tools they need to manage stress

After graduate school, I started my career as a quantitative researcher and, when a deadline was looming, I would have to start working 7 days a week for weeks straight. Those projects were instrumental in my career progression, but the potential for burnout was always just around the corner. As a result, I put in place a disciplined routine and worked hard to stick to it. Not everyone will have built up that knowledge on how to protect yourself from burnout before entering the workforce.

Managers can mentor others in the productivity and time management skills – prioritizing, delegating, and focusing without interruptions or multitasking – that are needed to complete work successfully and quickly in especially busy times. If someone is currently experiencing burnout, but can’t take vacation, encourage them to put time into their calendar throughout the day as a reminder to get away from their desk. Maybe it’s setting reminders on a mindfulness app to meditate once a day or blocking out lunchtime to go to the gym or get outside. Without teaching workers the tools they need to combat burnout, the feeling of burnout can become crippling.

Evaluate the example leadership is setting

Managers need to be a role model for how to prioritize preventing burnout. It might seem simple, but all too often, leadership doesn’t practice what they preach. For example, avoid sending emails at 2 a.m. or responding to Slack messages while on vacation so that your employees feel empowered to follow your lead and also set boundaries. You can also take a people science approach to workforce management, part of which includes using available technology to gather people data and analyze it to track individual employee development, engagement and well-being.

Encourage balance

In most jobs, there will be stressful peaks in which you must work hard to meet a deadline. After the deadline is met, take a step back as a group to regroup and decompress. Encourage the use of PTO to take a break away after a particularly stressful time. Go out into the community together and do meaningful volunteer work. Sage gives employees five days a year to go out into the community and make a difference, not only fostering personal growth but helping to give work a broader purpose. When work is calmer, have each person on the team evaluate their system for personal productivity and time management to identify opportunities for improvement and address these before you hit another stressful peak.

Ultimately, workers who are at risk of burnout need to prioritize getting their life back in balance and a company should focus on supporting them and arming them with the tools they need to relieve their stress. Without a concerted effort to make changes, burnout will negatively impact a person’s health and career, as well as being detrimental to a company’s bottom line.

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