National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins recently decided to step down after serving three presidents over 12 years, the longest tenure of any leader in the agency’s history. In his surprise announcement, Collins reflected that “no single person should serve in the position too long” – a gracious bow to the notion that new leadership can invigorate an organization, but also perhaps an acknowledgment that employee burnout can occur even at the highest levels.
Already a challenge for employers, burnout has soared to new highs during the stress and strain of COVID-19. In one survey, 67 percent of employees said burnout has gotten worse during the pandemic. Workers across every generation – Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers – all reported higher levels of burnout. Some researchers suggest that burnout is a cover term for mental health struggles in the workplace. Thus, adding to the complexity of this issue. A Gallup poll showed today’s American workers are among the world’s most stressed in the world, especially women.
The signs are everywhere, and not just a product of Zoom fatigue. Burned-out employees face exhaustion, difficulties concentrating, and feel disengaged or cynical toward their jobs. They report higher levels of stress, depression and physical illnesses – from increased heart rates to headaches.
This raises an urgent question at a time when companies are already struggling with widespread labor shortages and the threat of the unfolding “Great Resignation”, with millions of employees potentially walking off the job:
How can employers reduce burnout, improve employee mental health and happiness, and keep their valued workers?
Invest and Take Intentional Action
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), which now defines burnout as a major job-related challenge, employers need to take explicit actions in order to promote better mental health in the workplace. This includes good practices like involving employees in decision-making, giving workers a sense of control, and recognizing and rewarding employee contributions to the organization.
Investing in employee well-being doesn’t just produce happier workers, it also boosts the bottom line. The WHO pegs the ROI from strategies that focus on mental health at $4 in greater productivity and improved health for every $1 invested.
Replace Old Models with New Solutions
Individual companies are responding in novel ways. In June, dating-app company Bumble gave all employees a week off (#APaidWeekOff) – basically shutting down most operations to allow nearly every employee a chance to completely unplug. It went so well executives pledged two weeks of companywide downtime next year. Nike took a similar approach in August, closing corporate offices to help employees “rest and recover.”
A few years back, the HR experts at the SHRM catalogued other innovative strategies. One organization started holding “walking meetings” to get people away from their screens and out of their cubicles. Another created companywide “unplugged” initiatives aimed not just at encouraging better work-life balance, but actually enforcing it. What’s more, there is increasing evidence suggesting that the likelihood of a job change increases substantially following a traumatic experience. Employers must work to combat trauma – specifically collective trauma caused by the COVID pandemic – by providing resources, increasing awareness and creating an inclusive workplace culture.
Give Employees Control and Connection
Several companies identified promoting deep, meaningful relationships among colleagues as a way of keeping employees engaged, energized and motivated. Furthermore, hybrid work is causing increases in burnout, but employers have the opportunity to combat this by giving employees greater control over the way they work by ending arbitrary rules like 9-5 scheduling. While there’s no silver bullet, the process starts by recognizing burnout as a major threat to an organization’s culture, retention and productivity.
At a time when 55 percent of Americans in the workforce say they’re likely to be in the hunt for a new job over the next 12 months, employers cannot afford to be complacent. In August alone, 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs – almost 3 percent of the entire workforce.
It’s become almost a cliché for companies to proudly proclaim that their people are their most important asset. Now more than ever, organizations need to back up those sentiments by investing in clear strategies to combat employee burnout. Or risk becoming a casualty of the Great Resignation.