A Commentary by Wendy Ferguson – BHRLR, CPHR
noun burn·out \ ˈbərn-ˌau̇t \
- the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion.
- physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.
Do you have a chronic feeling of being out of sync with one or more aspects of your life? Are you experiencing a loss of energy, enthusiasm and confidence? You may be suffering from an affliction called “workplace burnout”, and like any other condition, the root causes must be identified before a cure can be found. Some key causes of burnout are:
- Excessive Collaboration
Too many decision makers and decision-making loops can result in endless rounds of meetings to ensure everyone is aligned. Disproportionate collaboration efforts lead to fragmented hours during the day for everyone involved. It’s hard to get ahead when you are in a perpetual meeting.
- Always-open Digital Workplace
Company-provided digital tools place expectations on employees to always be switched, and often way beyond the regular work day. One technology market research firm (The Radicati Group) released a study indicating that the average office worker receives 121 emails daily. One’s inbox can quickly become the bane of their existence. The pressure for an instant response and staying on top of it all before the next wave comes can be daunting. Ever have someone approach you at work saying, “did you get my email?”…5 minutes after they sent it?
- Overloading the Most Capable
When a company’s growth far exceeds its recruiting efforts we are left with a workforce that is generally overloaded with work, especially those whose knowledge and experience are in demand. Conversely, when downsizing occurs, companies will hang on to their best employees and the survivors are often expected to take on more. The workload is too much, too complex and often urgent…a perfect recipe for burnout.
If we spend a minimum of one day a week on e-communication and two days a week in meetings, that leaves us little time to make intelligent and well thought out decisions, reduces time for project work, phone calls, one-on-ones and other job tasks. Are these expectations even realistic? Sustainable? Should we just accept this as the hectic pace of modern life?
Today workplace stress is part of an explosion in workplace mental health issues and the Conference Board of Canada estimates a $50 billion per year price tag in lost productivity and medical costs. Stress leave is now the fastest growing category of disability insurance claims in Canada. In a 2017 Human Resources Institute of Alberta survey, just 51% of Alberta organizations surveyed had wellness programs in place and only 18% of those were satisfied with their existing programs. I engaged in a call with my association last summer and stress is decisively the biggest issue in today’s workplace. It was also noted that ongoing self-care is the most cost-effective way to manage stress.
Why do employees allow this disconnect between their core values and the core values of an organization? Some believe employee burnout is an organizational problem, not a personal issue. True, some companies do in fact breed this type of culture. Equally true, the majority of employees experiencing burnout will remain in their jobs and often say nothing until it’s far too late. But at what cost? We will inevitably see increased errors, lower productivity, attitude shifts, loss of motivation, mental and physical illnesses. Acute burnout will ultimately cause a toxic work environment, increased disability claims and a substantially high-priced turnover rate.
So, what can organizations do to prevent burnout?
Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety requires that employers do everything they reasonably can to protect the health and safety of their workers. Therefore, organizations are responsible to find ways to reduce workplace stressors that contribute to burnout. Here are some strategies that work:
Adjust the organizational structure and decision-making accountabilities – Observe any unnecessary organizational complexities or layers that are creating bottlenecks.
Assess how work is performed – What meetings need to happen? How frequently? Who needs to be involved? Who should be accountable to make a final decision? Who needs to be consulted in each process?
Allow staff control of their days (within reason of course) – this provides individuals a sense of autonomy and reduces micro-managing (another cause of stress).
Ensure employees have the necessary resources to meet expectations: time (our most important and finite resource), tools, training, support, etc.
Set realistic expectations – define which tasks require the most attention and highest standards and those that are secondary, all the while meeting the business needs and coach as necessary. If your employee is suffocating with an excessive workload, then change it.
Enforce reasonable work hours – help to assess workload for those who feel pressured to remain working beyond normal business hours (most likely due to work overload). Strongly encourage breaks away from work.
Encourage physical activity and promote self-care – that includes exercise, wellness programs and support (like employee assistance programs).
Define your technology protocol – as an organization, teach your employees in what situation someone is required to be emailed or texted in the first place. Perhaps you may prefer a culture of pick up the phone / walk down the hall. Or maybe you prefer things documented. That’s fine, but then it must be defined – what is the general rule of thumb of who should be in the To: and Cc: fields of an email? Don’t allow your staff to bombard their colleagues with ‘Reply to All’ messages, unless it’s absolutely necessary. Generally, To: means “action/response required” and Cc: is “for your information”, but only information someone truly needs. Anything more than the above is email pollution…causing more work and more stress!
What can employees do to protect themselves?
I understand the pressures employees face today in the workplace, especially given the economic decline we’ve experienced in Alberta. Those who manage to keep gainful employment don’t want to ‘rock the boat’, so their behaviour tends to contribute to the problem. Employees can do a lot to protect their health, their productivity and their jobs:
Be accountable for self-care – as mentioned, it is fundamentally the most important factor in de-stressing yourself. A list of healthy choices would be futile here as we all know deep down what we need to do to feel well. Do those things and regularly.
Set boundaries – like in any relationship, healthy boundaries are necessary. You are half of the employee-employer equation. You have a life outside of work and your employer is fully aware of that. Remember, excessive expectations will ultimately deplete you and you will be of no use to anyone. Be ok with saying “no”…if you can’t do that, you have no boundaries.
Communicate with your manager – have regular talks about the expectations of your job, what is working/what isn’t, what are your main priorities, what do you need to help you succeed. Set reasonable goals with your manager. Get their feedback and provide them with the same.
Leave work – by this I mean get out of there for a while each day…take a break. Leave work behind when you leave for the day.
Detect early signs of deteriorating health and act immediately – What does burnout look like for you? It’s different for everyone, but be aware of the signs (whether it is exhaustion, anger, depression, frustration, etc.). If you are overwhelmed, communicate that and get help right away. Connect with people you trust. Minimize or eliminate exposure to negative situations. Seek support, whether that is through friends, family, your employee assistance program or a doctor.
Left unchecked, unhealthy organizational norms will result in burnout, but leaders have the power to alter the course. Focusing on these strategies will support a healthy workforce, reduce burnout and raise productivity. A win-win!