Employee burnout can look like a lot of things. On some people it looks like powering through the day fuelled by caffeine and brute determination only to have a nice long cry in the bath at night.
On others it looks like a full-blown panic attack in the loos before a big presentation, or the sudden chucking of a stapler decorated with Flintstones stickers at a well-meaning-yet-mouthy colleague after a brief verbal skirmish.
The common denominator is that it’s never pretty. And seldom tidy. Mostly quite messy. This is why good employers know to keep an eye out for potential signs of employee burnout so they can address it before it comes to the point of either literal or metaphorical stitches.
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What causes burnout?
The World Health Organisation has defined employee burnout as an occupational phenomenon and 'a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed'. But what actually causes it?
Research on the topic suggests that there are 6 basic causes, some motivational, and others related to the structure of the workplace. These include:
- Lack of fairness
- Perceived lack of control
- Insufficient reward for effort
- Lack of a supportive community
- Mismatch of values and skills
- Too much work
What businesses are doing about COVID-19-related burnout
COVID-19 and the resultant lockdown measures that were put in place to curb the spread of the pandemic has impacted employee engagement and wellbeing in the workplace to a tremendous degree. In fact, according to findings by the SHRM, as many as 41% of employees are feeling burned out due to the effect of the pandemic, while 35% report symptoms of depression, but only 7% have sought the help of a mental health professional.
In short, managers need to help employees avoid burnout, which means finding ways to place workplace well-being front and centre at all times.
Different companies are approaching this in different ways. For instance, at the behest of CEO Jane Fraser Citigroup no longer allows internal video calls on Fridays, so employees can enjoy one Zoom-free day per week. She has also decreed an extra internal holiday, called 'Citi Reset Day'. Search engine giant Google has also followed suit by adding an extra day of holiday to the roster of its employees. This is a good start, but if you’ve ever felt an inkling of burnout in your life, you’ll also know that this type of incentive or nod of appreciation can feel somewhat insignificant.
Could more money make a difference?
Incentives impact employee performance. This much we know. But can money solve an issue like burnout? Certain companies are making a go of it. Credit Suisse, for instance, have paid their junior investment bankers a one-time "lifestyle" bonus of $20,000 to thank them for long hours and hard work. Similarly, Apollo Management offered their overworked associates as much as $200,000 each to stay on until the end of 2022 as they gear up for a bumper year of deal-making and hard hours.
But does it work? Well, to a certain extent it does.
An MIT study funded by the Federal Reserve Bank of the USA determined that when it comes to skilled, cognitive work, money is definitely a motivator, but it doesn’t work in exactly the way we’d expect.
Daniel H. Pink, an American author who has researched and written widely on human behaviour as it pertains to business, summed up these findings very well in his TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation. The short of it is that companies should compensate their employees well enough so that their salary is no longer their primary motivator and they can focus on becoming more competent as an individual.
However, once you reach this sweet spot, monetary incentives cease to be as effective as you'd like them to be. At this point, companies have to focus on providing their employees with the opportunity to enjoy autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Long-term solutions for employee burnout
It may not surprise you to learn that the best solutions for employee burnout will take some time to implement, cannot be forced and hinge quite heavily on the establishment of a healthy, employee-centric corporate culture.
Here are a few guidelines that will pave the way:
1. Distribute reasonable workloads
If employees at your company are regularly coming in early, working late and coming in over the weekends, this should not be celebrated or held up as a sign of ‘commitment to the cause’. There are many companies where this is indeed the case, but it adds up to a very toxic work environment in the long run.
Instead, when your employees are spreading themselves thin just to make their deadlines, you should be investigating where more resources are required and making a plan to get them in place. After all, when a given person or team does not enjoy a healthy work-life balance, they will only be able to maintain their work tempo for a while before it all comes tumbling down, negatively affecting productivity across the board.
2. Encourage digital unavailability and personal time off
Senior leaders and management should lead the way when it comes to taking personal time off and shutting down at the end of the day. Constantly being ‘on top of your emails’ can seem like dedication, but it’s also bad for emotional health and wellbeing.
3. Promote a healthy lifestyle
Provide employees with resources like the services of a dietician or a movement coach to take control of their health. Access to online resources like apps and video content are a great start. Making healthy snacks available at work, and arranging active group activities like hikes or fun sports games over weekends are another way to go.
Now you know! Check back soon for more helpful advice and great HR industry resources.
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