If you’re a leader, employee burnout is the kind of thing that keeps you up at night.
We all have great intentions to help our employees thrive and flourish under our leadership, but for some of us, the task can feel overwhelming. Or the pressures of our own to-do lists keep us from being proactive and intentional about building an exceptional workplace culture.
While sometimes it feels easier to coast on auto-pilot with our team members, the hard truth is that we can’t afford to ignore how employee burnout is affecting our workplaces. In fact, one 2017 survey of 614 HR leaders across the country found that 46% said employee burnout was to blame for up to half of their annual workforce turnover.
According to Drs. Christina Maslach, Wilmar B. Schaufeli and Michael Leiter, professors of psychology and experts in employee burnout and organizational development, employee burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job and is characterized by overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
If you ask most people what causes employee burnout, you’ll often get the following answers:
Unclear expectations from leadership
Work overload or lack of resources to do the job
Lack of praise or recognition for hard work
Poor communication or poor management
But underneath these valid and well-known causes, you’ll often also find deeply rooted cultural issues contributing to employee burnout.
So what’s causing the burnout?
1. Your team members don’t feel they have any control
Dr. Maslach identifies “lack of control” as a major risk factor for burnout. When employees are micromanaged, feel unable to participate in decisions that affect their work or perceive they have a lack of influence in their workplace, they are likely headed towards burnout.
No question, one of the greatest challenges of leadership is the balancing act between exercising oversight, providing expert guidance/accountability and giving employees authority over their own work. Our employees need us to stay engaged, provide helpful feedback and direction, and create systems and structures that help them accomplish their tasks.
But those systems and structures shouldn’t make our employees feel like cogs in a machine.
Excellent leaders will establish clear expectations about projects, timelines and desired outcomes, but give employees the freedom to decide the best way to make it happen. This allows employees to contribute their unique talents and strengths to projects, which increases employee engagement and job satisfaction.
First, have conversations about the expectations and goals you have for each employee and set timelines for important projects. Allow them input in goal setting.
Create communication channels and feedback loops to keep everyone up to speed and accountable for stated goals and outcomes.
Communicate to your team members that you want them to leverage their unique talents and strengths to discern the most efficient and productive ways to complete their work tasks.
Individualize your leadership approach to each employee. Some of your employees will crave more structure and oversight, while others will need more freedom and autonomy to create and innovate.
2. You aren’t coaching and developing your team members
Only one in five employees strongly agrees that they are managed in a way that motivates them.
The reality is that workplace expectations have shifted. According to Gallup's recent State of the American Workplace Report, employees are looking for more than just a paycheck and an annual performance review, and they aren’t satisfied with a boss who simply manages their work progress.
On the contrary, they crave an authentic mentoring relationship with their leaders. This is especially true of Millennial employees, who rank “opportunities to learn and grow” as one of the top three factors influencing their retention.
According to Vipula Gandhi, a Managing Partner at Gallup, today’s employees expect much more than a boss:
“Archetypal managers tell people what to do; coaches ask questions that help their people move forward. Managers focus on past performance and mistakes that cannot be fixed; coaches focus on the future and opportunities to improve. Managers set expectations first, and then inform their team; coaches include individual feedback so that goals are mutually agreed on upfront. Managers focus on accountability; coaches are invested in the success and growth of their teams.”
Exceptional leaders make it their aim to identify, cultivate and champion the long-term professional goals of their team members. They stay intellectually curious about their employees and consider themselves mentors, not out of selfish gain, but because they want to leave a lasting legacy of investment in their people.
They don’t just manage; they coach.
Have a conversation with your employees about their dreams and aspirations. Ask them what kinds of knowledge, skills or training they would love to acquire while on your team. Then, brainstorm and identify specific plans to help get them there.
Identify each employee’s talents and give them more opportunities to use them in their role. Focus less on fixing weaknesses and more on developing strengths.
Ditch the annual performance review. Instead, create Individual Development Plans (IDPs) and schedule ongoing conversations with your team members. These ongoing conversations can take a variety of forms, such as weekly 15 minute check-ins or monthly meetings focusing on feedback and development.
3. Your team members feel no connection to your company’s values
According to Gallup, just 23% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they can apply their organization's values to their work every day and only 27% strongly agree that they "believe in" their organization's values.
Most companies make the mistake of leaving all the conversations about company values to executive leadership. Meanwhile, everyone else on the org chart feels disconnected from the vision and mission of the organization and doesn’t see how their work contributes to any greater good.
But company values and mission should matter to all employees, not just those at the top: “The messages employees receive should consistently guide their actions and behaviors and align them with the company's ideal culture.”
Excellent leaders work hard to connect each and every person’s role in their company to the larger vision, mission, and purpose of the organization. When employees can see a clear link between their job responsibilities and a greater good, they are more engaged and satisfied in their workplaces.
Make sure you have a clear vision and mission for your organization. What are your company values? These guiding frameworks should inform all that you do in your workplace.
Have each team within the organization create statements about their vision and values as they relate to the larger vision and values of the company.
Ask your employees if they can sense the unique ways they contribute to your organization’s vision and mission. Tell their stories. Highlight them in meetings. Reward employees who exemplify your company’s values. Help others see the value that every team member brings to your organization.
4. You're praising and rewarding workaholic behavior in your team members
“Be the first to arrive and the last to leave.”
This is the kind of well-intentioned advice we give recent college graduates and those wanting to climb the leadership ladder. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that this line of thinking can contribute to an unhealthy work/life balance and can perpetuate burnout in our employees. Too much overtime and after-hours work (32%) is identified as one of the top three contributors to burnout, alongside unfair compensation and unreasonable workload.
It’s easy to unintentionally reward workaholic behavior in our team members.
We want our employees to have great work ethic, care deeply about their role and responsibilities and perform at a high level. But without realizing it we can perpetuate unhealthy patterns in our team members. When we praise an employee for what amounts to workaholic tendencies, especially in front of others, we are creating a culture where our employees feel they have to sacrifice their families, friendships, hobbies or outside passions in order to impress us and get ahead.
According to the Harvard Business Review, 1 in 5 of highly engaged (think: productive and passionate) employees are at risk of burnout. Leaders can help by “dialing down the demands they’re placing on people – ensuring that employee goals are realistic and rebalancing the workloads of employees who, by virtue of being particularly skilled or productive, have been saddled with too much.”
Our most productive and passionate employees often need to be reminded that they have value and worth outside of their accomplishments and achievements at work. It’s easy for them to feel the crippling weight of our expectations, especially when they have been explicitly or implicitly praised for unhealthy and workaholic patterns of behavior.
Ask yourself whether or not you set a good example in this area. Communicate the importance of a healthy work/life balance to your team members, both in words and in action.
When you notice workaholic behavior in an employee, discuss it with him/her and be the kind of leader who says, “Don’t make work the center of your life. Work hard, but set good work/life boundaries and stick to them.”
Implement policies that create healthy boundaries. Consider a no-email policy on nights and weekends, because when you email outside of working hours, you communicate to your team that you expect the same from them.
5. Your team members are lonely at work
For most of us, we spend more time with our co-workers than we do our closest friends and family. These working relationships often make or break workplace culture, employee engagement and employee job satisfaction. If our team members don’t feel part of a thriving community, they are likely to develop feelings of loneliness and isolation, which often leads to burnout.
According to Annamarie Mann, an Employee Engagement and Well-Being Practice Manager at Gallup, deep connections and strong social support at work makes a big difference in our well-being:
“We want work to feel worthwhile and having trusted confidants and supporters helps foster that feeling. We go to our work friends when we need to celebrate and commiserate about our personal and professional lives. In the absence of that outlet, work can seem lonely and isolating. It lacks attachments. We may like what we do, we may get to use our talents and strengths every day, but we're probably not feeling fully energized or motivated to put our whole selves into our roles.”
Exceptional leaders create workplace cultures where employees feel connected to and supported by one another. Our aim should be to foster positive co-worker relationships, look out for one another and build a workplace that is characterized by praise and recognition.
Assess the state of your workplace with respect to interpersonal relationships. Do your employees enjoy one another, laugh together or spend time together outside of working hours?
Ask yourself if you are communicating vulnerability and empathy to your employees. Do they know anything about your personal life, your family, your hobbies?
Create spaces and opportunities for employees to build connections and get to know one another. Eat lunch together as a team or set aside time in meetings to share important personal stories. Promote and attend social activities and group outings or volunteer together.
If you have employees who work remotely or travel on a consistent basis, brainstorm creative ways you can keep them engaged and connected to the life of your company.
Be the kind of leader your employees want to follow
We can’t expect an exceptional workplace culture to build itself. Rather, if we want to leave a lasting legacy and lead a team of highly engaged and healthy people, we’ve got to be strategic, vulnerable and proactive in our leadership approach.
We’ve got to know what we’re up against, and Maslach and Leitner remind us what’s at stake: “A good understanding of burnout, its dynamics, and what to do to overcome it is therefore an essential part of staying true to the pursuit of a noble cause, and keeping the flame of compassion and dedication burning brightly.”
When we do spot burnout in our team members, we have both the opportunity and responsibility to lead with empathy and guidance so that our team members can regain balance and health in the workplace.
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