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By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL
“The land of burnout is not a place I ever want to go back to”. – Arianna Huffington
In a recent article published by Harvard Business Review (HBR), responsibility for employee burnout in the workplace has shifted from employees to the organization itself. This idea may seem shocking to us Americans who staunchly uphold individual rights and rugged individualism, however, within an organization, the culture becomes a collective environment, a community, just like a city, college campus, a military unit, or even a church organization. In the work environment where much is expected of individuals, the organization takes on the duty for the well-being of its members. This idea has become more evident with the recent benefits offered to employees such as onsite gyms, onsite childcare, flexible hours, free flu shots and other employee support.
And now, with the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognizing burnout as a public health concern (WHO now refers to burnout as “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” in the organization’s International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual.), more than ever, it is up to organizations to create a strategy to prevent burnout in the workplace.
Today’s workers, facing pandemic conditions, with job uncertainty, remote work environments and the transition to hybrid work models confront the issue of burnout more often than ever. How do leaders develop a strategy to head off employee burnout? What is the example of our leaders in such an unstable environment? According to the Center for Creative Leadership, when leaders overwork themselves, everyone else experiences exhaustion.
Why is this shift toward curing burnout so important? Because work is changing. According to a McKinsey study, the future of work is now hybrid. Predictions say that 80% of workers will only be in the office 1-4 days per week and working remotely the other days. In a similar study by the Conference Board, more than 70% of organizations in their survey plan to reopen their doors in the next six months using a hybrid model. LinkedIn reports that remote job postings have skyrocketed recently to attract more diverse talent like women and Gen Z. These two demographics are more likely to apply for the remote jobs.
Furthermore, there is fear among workers that their bosses would react negatively to admitting they want to work remotely, hurting their chances for advancement. And Korn Ferry reports that 58% of these workers say they would “absolutely” look for another job where remote work is encouraged. No surprise, fear in the workplace creates burnout.
Managements’ response has been tepid. McKinsey reports that 68% of employers have no detailed plan for creating a hybrid work environment. Management is struggling to create hybrid teams where there is no precedent. What researchers have learned, however, is that working completely virtually is exhausting. Zoom burnout is a real thing. It’s easy to be distracted working strictly virtually and many workers report feeling far less productive.
The argument for a more flexible work environment is best summed up in a quote from INSEAD (The Business School for the World), “It’s easier to be in each other’s presence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence.” Creating the proper environment for the best result from workers is clearly the responsibility of leaders. It goes right back to leadership fundamentals – “Leadership is a social process to deliver a result.” (CCL) Research has shown that leaders must make a shift from “Am I doing it right?” to “Are we doing it right?” This means that communication as a leadership skill is no longer just valuable, but essential.
Leadership plays a crucial role in working towards lessening the effects of burnout if they want to maintain their talent and get the results they want from people. How do they transition from creating burn out to “Burn Bright”? First, find out what people want and create agreements to get work done. People need buy in before they will commit to a change. Work on creating these new hybrid team agreements – meaning teams commit to their own outcomes and the tools needed to track them; management must establish a level of trust with employees. Tell them, you get it done the way you want! (Imagine, managers must let go of micromanaging!) And people need to feel safe stating their perspective and leaders need to ask them what questions they have before proceeding.
People also must learn it’s okay to take care of themselves. That means care in every way: physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, and social. Leaders can encourage employees to move more, practice mindfulness, rest more, feel gratitude, and make connections with others. Make the environment more conducive to these activities and watch your productivity levels rise along with your bottom line. These changes may require some culture change or even leadership change (out with the old, in with the new). But how do we get there?
The CCL has outlined four core behaviors for better communication:
The belief is that organizational culture change is built through meaningful conversations between leaders and their employees. And through meaning comes understanding. Through understanding comes practicing. Through practicing comes productivity and results.
The HBR article states that once leaders act proactively to head off burnout, the company benefits just as much as the individuals. With more openness, less work pressure, fewer unreasonable demands, and more fairness, the root causes of burnout can be averted. In the case of the new order of work, hybrid teams and remote work, the same principles apply. Ask people how they want to work, and you will get the work you want.
“One thing that burned out employees have in common – Leaders who have yet to get specific about the future of hybrid work.” McKinsey Quarterly
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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.
Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.
Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.
Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.
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