At this point, we've all heard about employee burnout and the incredible toll it can take on individuals' mental, physical and emotional health, not to mention their company's performance and bottom line. A staggering 76% of employees report experiencing burnout in their work at least sometimes, according to a 2020 report from Gallup Research.
In the best of times, many companies share a culture where being busy and exhausted is perceived as admirable. As a result, the risk for burnout is high. The recent pandemic has only heightened that risk, with the boundaries between work-life and home-life blurring, and increased pressure to add value (and avoid a layoff). Not to mention many are juggling home responsibilities like childcare with work.
This is especially true for employees who love their work and for those who are concerned that creating true separation between their work and personal life will make them appear less driven. So how can we build company cultures that encourage productive, meaningful work—but don’t lead people to sacrifice their sanity in the process?
Burnout is more than just stress.
The World Health Organization first officially recognized burnout in 2019, terming it "a form of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." It is characterized by the following:
Feeling exhaustion or lack of energy
Feeling cynical, negative or distant from your job
Being less productive at work
And those are just the symptoms. The repercussions can be physical, psychological and occupational: Studies indicate that burnout is a significant predictor for everything from insomnia and depression to coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, not to mention increases in job dissatisfaction, absenteeism and other behaviors that are of consequence to employers.
It’s common among high achievers who love their careers.
According to recent studies, there are three major types of employees who experience burnout: those who feel overwhelmed, those who are under-stimulated and those who feel disengaged. Underchallenged and disengaged employees can respond well to opportunities for professional and personal development, but what about an ambitious person determined to make an impact?
By acknowledging burnout as the legitimate issue it is, the WHO helped launch the condition into the global spotlight. But while awareness is on the rise, the response still seems to fall short. Articles advising that employees simply need to "work less" and "take some time for themselves," can feel laughable in a culture where 1 a.m. emails and working through the weekend have become de rigueur. This is true for employees at every level, but can especially resonate with motivated achievers who want to prove themselvesin high-pressure jobs.
Understand what's causing the problem—and make changes.
Each company has its own issues to address, but there are three trends that contribute to burnout across the board.
1) With emails chiming in our pockets, we're always working.
Employees checking email before getting out of bed is a problem—for more reasons than you might think.
"Each time we receive a work alert when we are not at work, our brain performs something called a 'cognitive set shift,'" says Jennifer Douglas, Ph.D., a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. "This means it takes energy and effort to go from listening to your partner's story about their day to thinking about a work task."
This energy depletion happens even if we don’t respond to the email, Dougas says, because it begins as soon as we have to process new information about a different subject matter. It's the constant switching back and forth from work to personal and back again that decreases our sense of restoration, which can contribute to burnout.
To help reduce the number of set-shifts for employees, companies can make the culture around technology more human—and that’s especially critical now that everyone is working from home during the pandemic. In fact, now is an opportunity to model and foster healthy behaviors, such as setting their Slack notifications to Do Not Disturb, taking breaks and staying "off" during predetermined hours.
2) Without clear goals, employees are either overwhelmed or disengaged.
Working without knowing what you’re working toward can, for high achievers, lead to a feeling of endless work without achievement or recognition. On the other end of the spectrum, a lack of connection with company goals or team objectives might be the reason some employees feel disengaged. Both can lead to burnout in employees.
"Set reasonable individual employee goals and corporate goals," says Carla Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in employee burnout. "Goals that are excessively high and nearly unachievable can lead to exhaustion and frustration, but when goals are clear and doable, employees will feel challenged."
The next step: Celebrate individuals for achieving those goals—even if it's just a quick email saying "good job!" "Not only will this increase employee motivation, but it will help decrease the stress that leads to burnout," Manly says.
3) Listening and understanding go a long way.
The more someone expects their work to be meaningful, the more easily they can experience burnout—especially when they feel their ability to achieve their goals is hampered by outside forces like bureaucratic red tape, unnecessary regulations and unresolved conflicts.
"Employees can figure out most of their work-related issues and problem-solve on their own," says Annie Varvaryan, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who provides therapy to tech employees in Silicon Valley. "But when an employee is coming to management with an issue about meeting their deadlines, department issues or even systemic issues in their company, it’s important to help them feel listened to instead of turning every discussion into a problem-solving session." This may seem counterintuitive—why wouldn't people want solutions?—but research suggests simply hearing out a problem and responding nonjudgmentally can improve morale.
This kind of open-door policy centered around listening can help employees feel confident raising a variety of issues—including feelings of stress or other mental health concerns. This will help who are experiencing burnout—or are about to—come forward and seek support.
"Have referrals on hand for therapists who accept the company’s insurance," Manly says. "This may sound simple, but the impact can be profound."
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Strategies to Improve Employee Learning Retention
Learning programs are often costly and may not always bring about the change in behavior that organizational leaders hope to see. And every so often, learning programs actually take employees away from the very work they were hired to do, which can be costly for the company and stressful for the employee. What if a simple process could help dramatically improve employee learning retention? Just two key steps—one before the learning event, and one after—can open learners' minds to new concepts and enable them to reflect on how fresh knowledge or insight might help them in their job. To improve learning retention, it's key to zero in on the knowledge that needs to be acquired, ensure that the learner understands why it needs to be acquired and set one or two simple goals for learners to work towards immediately after the learning experience. Set Up Learning Moments Understanding the "why" is a critical step to create interest, communicate relevance, and make learning stick. Otherwise, the content may not be meaningful, causing boredom and a wandering mind. Plus, if you don't frame learning experiences in the right way, employees might not even know they're happening. Consider this example from one of my clients. The CEO of a manufacturing company was puzzled when his employees asked for training. After reviewing the results of a learning needs assessment, he was even more confused because he felt that the company was already doing much of the training that his employees requested. Still, his employees clearly didn't realize when learning took place. As a small organization, he didn't have the budget or the time for external training that didn't contribute to "real" work, so we helped them create an informal learning program. With specific learning needs identified, managers put on their teaching hats and created templates that broke concepts up into small chunks. They then identified a subject matter expert within the organization that would lead the learning experiences, which we called "learning moments." To get started, the subject matter expert prefaced the first learning moment by explaining the "what and why" of the content, and setting the stage for what was about to take place. The subject matter expert then led learners through the content in a structured way over a span of about 15 minutes. It didn't take long for employees to realize that learning was happening—by talking about learning before it took place, the expert prepared the employees to better absorb material. Nail Down Takeaways When employees return from learning sessions, it's vital for employees to bring new knowledge back to their managers and their teams. It's then up to managers to coach them on how to practice what they have just learned. This process reinforces what employees have absorbed, and helps open their eyes to how new concepts can be put to action. In the case of my manufacturing company client, for example, the subject matter expert met with a manager to debrief after the learning moment. Not only did the subject matter expert feel that employees learned a lot during the session, but she also found that she improved her own personal expertise as well. The manager then followed up with the employees that participated in the learning experience and suggested that they find one or two ways to incorporate new concepts into practice quickly. Closing the loop on learning and discussing takeaways helped seal the deal with regard to retention. I have always followed the advice I got early in my career: "If you are going to present something, always tell the audience what you are going to present, present it, and then recap what you just presented." Sometimes, understanding is just a matter of connecting the dots between learning and doing. Being very intentional and clear about your organization's approach to learning will put you on the journey towards becoming a learning organization. Photo: Creative Commons
How to Use Vacation Time to Mitigate Burnout in the Workplace
Feeling burned out at work is an all-too-common condition in the workplace today. Employees spend up to 2.6 hours a day checking their email, more than eight hours a day at work and 23 hours a week stuck in meetings. Though workplace burnout is not technically a medical condition, it may lead to depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and insomnia. In fact, the World Health Organization recently classified workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon and, consequently, a work hazard. So where can workers turn for relief? A vacation, of course. But how workers take time off can play a critical role in their well-being during and after their break. Cornerstone surveyed 1,000 employees in the American workforce about work-life balance and the effect a long vacation can have on achieving this crucial equilibrium. The survey found 87% of workers believe that three-day weekends are actually better for stress relief than longer vacations. With a three-day weekend, workers can relax without worrying about what awaits them when they return. In fact, workers who take long vacations not only reported working longer hours upon returning to work, but they also became more stressed than they were before their break. About two-thirds of respondents also noticed more work for co-workers that were forced to pick up the slack. And yet, many employees are still taking sabbaticals and long vacations for some much-needed self-care. Based on its survey findings, Cornerstone has pulled together some tips for workers who do opt for longer vacations. From resetting deadlines ahead of time to organizing schedules and inboxes, here’s how to successfully return from some time away. Prepare So You Can Actually Tune Out When on a long vacation, most employees try to completely unplug from work. About 60% of survey respondents said they rarely check in with colleagues while they’re out, and 41% said they never do. However, if an employee does plan on going completely off the grid for the duration of a trip, there are steps that they and their manager should take before departure. Managers need to plan ahead for heavy vacation periods, like the summer months or the winter holiday season. By resetting deadlines and reevaluating workflows during these times, companies can avoid falling behind when they’re understaffed. What’s more, employers can also use popular vacation times to train and develop the skills of other, newer employees. Employees must prepare, too. If an employee leads a team, they should be sure to schedule time to set expectations for how work will be distributed while they are away. To stay organized and efficient, employees can organize their inboxes into folders so that important emails are flagged, while secondary materials like newsletters and company-wide emails are stored for a later date. Get Organized After a Break Upon return, it’s easy to become quickly overwhelmed by the amount of work that has piled up. But there are a few simple ways employees can mitigate this stress. For instance, employees can replace long, individual email catch-up sessions with check-in meetings. By catching up in-person, employees can streamline conversations and focus on what is most important and top-of-mind. With their manager’s approval, employees can also consider reorganizing their schedule to avoid any non-essential calls or meetings. This way, employees are spending their first day or two back syncing with their teams and ongoing projects. More than anything, employees should try to relax and mindfully prioritize their schedule. A realistic timeline that places timely matters first and saves less urgent items for later can help employees successfully ease back into their work. Reconsider the Long Vacation Most jobs are stressful, but checking out of work for a full week or two while vacationing can be even more stressful. And Cornerstone’s survey results reflect this: A three-day weekend may help reduce stress levels at work far more effectively than a long vacation. Taking a Friday or Monday off to extend the weekend every once in a while has become an increasingly popular, and possibly even better, way to reduce burnout. "Burnout has a significant effect on the workplace," says Kim Cassady, Cornerstone’s Chief Talent Officer. "The findings of this survey should empower organizations and employees to discuss the habits and resources that can combat it." In our ever-connected digital workplaces, it’s harder than ever to separate work from the rest of our lives. Vacation days should be used to maintain a healthy work-life balance, but time away is most effective when strategically and thoughtfully planned. Header photo: Creative Commons
To Increase Innovation, Productivity and Retention, A Learning Culture is Key
This article originally appeared in TLNT. I've spent my career on learning: It's in my job title. I've studied the psychology of learning, and I've been involved in helping everyone from executives to middle schoolers get better at it. I've learned a lot myself in that time — including that learning is consistently pushed last on the priority list. My sixth graders were always looking for shortcuts around it, and in the workplace it's avoided in favor of more tangible deliverables — even despite the positive impact it can have. Deloitte research suggests companies with strong learning cultures are 92 percent more likely to innovate, not to mention 52 percent more productive. What's more, giving employees learning opportunities helps promote long-term retention. A 2018 LinkedIn Jobs Report found 94 percent of employees would stay at a company longer if that company invested in their career development. Yet 6-in-10 managers say getting employees to make time is the biggest challenge for talent development. Even at my company, where a bulk of our business is centered around helping other companies implement learning, we're not perfect at ensuring our own employees make time for personal development. In fact, this year we've decided to challenge ourselves to increase the amount of time employees spend learning. And by implementing the following strategies, your company can too. Stop the Excuses Often, the reason learning falls by the wayside comes down to one excuse: "I'm too busy." When big projects come up or your team is overwhelmed with tasks, it's easy to tell employees to prioritize the work and skip the 30-minute course on something like problem solving or communication. But in my experience, you can almost always find the time for learning — just think about the times when the CEO gives a presentation, everyone is magically available for an hour. One way to get time back? Take a closer look at meetings. Meetings have increased in number and in length since the 1960s, according to the Harvard Business Review, and over 70 percent of executives surveyed in their study agreed most meetings are unproductive and inefficient. In my experience, most one-hour meetings can be done in 15 to 20 minutes. If your meeting doesn't have a specific action or outcome, maybe you don't need to have it in the first place. And not everyone has to be in every meeting; review the meeting goals to ensure your employees are only in the meeting if they need to be. Make Development Important to management Even outside of busy periods at work, it can be challenging to get employees to invest time in learning. I think this stems from the decades-old perception that if an employee has free time, it's an indication they're not working hard enough. And that's still ingrained in some company cultures today: One of my colleagues came from an environment where pursuing learning instead of billable client work meant that she wasn't proving her value to the company. The only way to start to change this cultural habit is to start to change expectations — and that's a directive that needs to come from senior leadership. If managers are being measured by their ability to complete projects, there is no incentive for them to help to develop their employees. But if one of the company's core management competencies is for managers to be developers of people, managers are much more likely to prioritize learning. When the colleague I mentioned started at Cornerstone, she told me she struggled to adjust to the expectation that she make time for learning in her schedule. The person who helped her make the switch? Her manager. Start Seeing the ROI Managers worried about time lost to learning might actually find that learning actually improves their employees' work. According to LinkedIn research, employees who engage in learning regularly are 47 percent less likely to be stressed, 23 percent more ready to take on additional responsibilities, and 21 percent more likely to feel confident and happy. Learning can also increase productivity: Research suggests a break from your traditional job can promote creative thinking and productivity. Moreover, employee retention is tied closely to learning. According to research from the Institute for the Future, 42 percent of millennials report they are likely to leave a company because they are not learning enough. Meanwhile, the same study revealed 52 percent of employers consistently struggle to fill open positions — at a cost of 150 percent of the salary of a mid-level employee. Learning can help reduce employee churn, and even address hiring challenges across the organization. Finally, a learning culture can future-proof your organization as things like automation and the rise of the gig economy continue to change the workforce. According to one study, 90 percent of global managers and executives expect their work to be disrupted in the near future, but only 44 percent say their organizations are adequately prepared for it. Rather than looking elsewhere for the talent to fill those gaps as needs arise, companies have the opportunity to start developing their current workforce today by building a learning culture. By dedicating more time for employees to learn and grow their skills, companies will maintain a workforce that is on the cutting edge of whatever change comes next in the world of work. Photo: Creative Commons