[89%] of workers admit to
experiencing burnout … . [While] burnout is not
the only reason people are leaving their jobs …
it’s a factor that businesses can’t afford to ignore.
Management by Coaching
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
THE BIG QUIT
Is burnout forcing your people out the door?
“Your business is important to us, and we apologize for the longer-than-average hold-time due to current staff shortages,” said the pre-recorded message for what felt like the millionth time. After waiting 90 minutes for customer service to pick up the call, my patience was nonexistent. But then the service representative told me my long-awaited furniture delivery scheduled for the following morning was not coming, and that she had no idea when it might arrive.
I went ballistic.
In response, she just kept repeating in a robotic voice, “This is a supply chain problem.” When I asked why the company hadn’t even told me about the change, she answered, “I have nothing left to say; I am totally depleted and need to hang up the phone.” While blunter than most, this woman voiced what millions of people are feeling.
According to a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a record-breaking 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August 2021 across an array of industries. This is the highest number since the agency started tracking the data in 2000 and the sixth consecutive month of sky-high quitting rates.
People are leaving their jobs for a range of reasons. Consider these examples: A high-tech executive is transitioning to part-time so she can spend more time with her children. A CFO is fed up with the business and is going to flip houses. A service representative is leaving her job of 15 years to pursue what she sees as a more meaningful career as a nurse. A highly successful CEO is resigning because he’s exhausted and feels like he’s failing because he can’t continue to give his organization 110%.
A 2020 study conducted by Visier found that 89% of workers admit to experiencing burnout, with an even higher rate for women. Burnout is not the only reason people are leaving their jobs but it’s a factor that businesses can’t afford to ignore.
Organizational impact of burnout
Being burnt out and still on the job takes a toll on the individual and the organization. A recent study from Deloitte indicates that the financial impact on the organization is significant. Distressed employees miss more work and are less focused and less engaged—all of which impact productivity. In addition, they experience increased rates of mental and physical illness, which drive up healthcare costs. As stress levels rise, customer service falls, and business is lost. The more stressful the workplace feels, the higher the turnover rate.
A shift in thinking
Historically, burnout was viewed as the employee’s problem and something they needed to address with better self-care strategies like getting more sleep, taking time off, exercising, and practicing mindfulness. Research studies show that organizational factors largely outside of the employee’s control contribute significantly to burnout. Unrealistically high workloads, low levels of job control, incivility, administrative hassles, lack of resources, stressed managers and clients, and negative leadership behaviors play a critical role in employee burnout.
The research also reveals a strong correlation between individuals’ resilience and the support systems available to them at work. This is supported by the finding that 70% of employees would leave their organization for a different employer if they offered resources to reduce burnout.
The good news is that smart organizations are owning up to the impact they have on employee burnout and the opportunity to address the problem.
Identifying the problem
People use the term burnout loosely, so it’s important to clarify what it means. Burnout is a prolonged response to chronic situational stressors, not a reaction to a crisis or emergency. The everyday demands of the job begin to wear people down over time.
According to Christina Maslach, professor emerita at the University of California and a leading authority on burnout, three overlapping dimensions characterize burnout:
- Exhaustion. People feel like they just can’t do it anymore. They lose their energy and enthusiasm. They feel like they can’t think straight. They just want to go home but feel they can’t because they’ve still got so much more to do. Our physical energy begins with our intellectual drive, so it’s no surprise that teammates in this position may mention feeling more tired. (Warning signs: If someone is less energetic than they used to be, not as punctual to meetings or less talkative and forceful, you might be seeing signs of burnout.)
- Cynicism. People aren’t just feeling depleted; they’re getting to the point of saying, “Take this job and shove it.” They begin to get negative and hostile, and cynical about the other people, the place, what’s going on, and people start changing how they work. People start to distance themselves mentally from the job. Rather than trying to do their very best, they’re trying to do the bare minimum. “What is the least I need to do and still have the job and get out of here with a paycheck?” (Warning signs: increased cynicism and irritability toward clients, co-workers, and even their manager; more combative and argumentative; and openly speak negatively about the organization or industry.)
- Negative self-evaluation. People start to lose their confidence and feel poorly about themselves. They think: “I’m not good at this, I’ve made a mistake, or maybe I shouldn’t be here.” They feel stuck and have trouble visualizing a future for themselves. (Warning signs: Employees feel less efficient or overwhelmed and start to ask for less responsibility when they used to want more.)
What can organizations do?
Organizations can proactively create work environments that address and mitigate toxic stress, help workers adapt to changing environments, and provide the resources workers need to consistently manage stress and build resilience. Important steps include:
- Start with managers. Gallup research shows that managers account for 70% of the variance in their team’s engagement. The challenge is that research also indicates that managers report more stress and signs of burnout, worse work/life balance, and worse physical well-being than the individual contributors on the teams they lead. Recognizing the problem and supporting managers in dealing with their own burnout issues is critical. Managers also need to take a hard look at how their habits, communications, and management style may be contributing to burnout. A Harvard Business Review article assessing employee perceptions about burnout uncovered that “having an empathetic manager” was the second-most-cited factor in reducing burnout, ranking just slightly behind “manageable workloads.” Training managers to communicate empathetically reduces burnout and increases job satisfaction. It’s a skill in which we all can improve.
- Manage the workload. Workload is the single most important factor in burnout levels. For many, the pandemic has increased their workload and the difficulty in getting business done. Current staff shortages are exacerbating the problem. Being realistic about what can be accomplished and having clear expectations and smart priorities at the organizational and individual levels are vital to survival.
- Control meetings. The National Bureau of Economic Research reveals that, since the pandemic, employees are spending 13% more time in meetings—many of which hurt rather than help productivity. (For free tips on improving meeting productivity, email email@example.com). In an effort to stay connected, we’ve become overly reliant on video meetings. The downside is that video calls are harder on us physically and mentally. That’s because our brains find it more challenging to process nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language, making it tough to relax during conversations. Avoid Zoom fatigue by using video meetings judiciously. Many of these calls can be handled by phone, email, or workplace communication platforms like Slack.
- Give more autonomy. Lack of control and micromanagement accelerate burnout. Look for ways to give people more control over how, when, and where they accomplish their work while still holding them accountable.
- Find the meaning. With burnout, it’s not just about being exhausted and working too hard. It’s feelings like “what’s the point?” and “why am I even here?” Help people connect to the value of what they do.
- Be fair. It turns out that fairness is extremely important. People need to feel that the policies in place are fairly administrated. For example, are some employees allowed to negotiate a work-from-home arrangement while others are not.
- Support resilience. Individuals’ levels of resilience are more dependent on the support systems around them than was previously thought. Rather than focusing solely on building employee resilience, it’s essential to look at how the work environment supports it. For example: Do employees have the tools they need to do their jobs effectively? Do they have access to mental health and wellness resources? Is there a sense of community in the workplace and does the culture support employees’ need for downtime?
Don’t blame COVID-19
Yes, we are experiencing unprecedented levels of burnout but it would be a mistake to chalk it off to the pandemic. Burnout was at record levels before the crisis. As we begin to consider what our future workplace will look like, we have a unique opportunity to hit the reset button and put the policies and support systems in place that will not only improve productivity but will also support well-being.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property/casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.