What is burnout?
Burnout, a worrying workplace phenomenon, has been gaining steady notice over the past decade. However, the pandemic accelerated the levels of burnout and cast into the spotlight the disquieting state of mental health, well-being, and burnout in our global workforce. Though most people tend to throw the word around casually, burnout is a serious condition that the World Health Organization, in 2019, described as a workplace phenomenon and defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.“
The WHO furthers elaborates burnout as being characterized by
- Chronic exhaustion and feelings of energy depletion,
- Alienation from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
- A feeling of professional inefficacy.
What causes burnout?
Remote work, for a majority of employees, often refers to working from home where the line between work and non-work is hazy at best. Many employees struggle with identifying healthy boundaries between work and their personal lives. Coupled with hyper-digitization, an always-on technological environment, rampant FOMO (“fear of missing out”), and a culture that celebrates overwork, employees tend to overwork to the level of exhaustion, day after day, leading to burnout.
A Harvard research identified millennials as the most burned-out of the workforce because of their lack of autonomy at the workplace, their economic and financial situations, and their lack of social connectedness.
The WHO provides a framework to describe six areas where employee experiences can cause burnout. These are:
- A workload that does not allow space for rest, personal development, and professional growth.
- A perceived lack of control leading to employees feeling out of control on issues concerning them. This lack of control amongst employees can be caused primarily by a feeling of not having their perspectives heard or acknowledged, or having inadequate training and resources to complete a job.
- Lack of reward and recognition, both intrinsic and extrinsic, can lead to employees feeling let down even after the effort they make to do a good job.
- Lack of community, professional relationships, camaraderie, and social connectedness leading to increased feelings of isolation.
- Unfair and inequitable practices at the workplace such as discrimination, or even a lack of visibility and recognition exacerbate stress.
- A mismatch in value systems causes immense psychological stress to employees that lends itself to burnout.
Why does it matter?
Primarily, burnout affects the culture and humane element that organizations strive to build. Successful companies and good workplaces are made up of people, and it is imperative that organizations take care of their most important resources – their people.
Striving to prevent and mitigate burnout is not only good human resource practice but also a business-critical process. A World Economic Forum study estimates that burnout is costing the global economy £255 billion. Another WHO study estimated that burnout is costing organizations $1 trillion in lost productivity every year.
How can managers recognize symptoms of burnout?
A culture of trust and empathetic leadership is key to recognizing and mitigating signs and symptoms of burnout amongst employees. Managers and leaders must strive to create teams and workplaces that allow employees to voice concerns, find space for individual interests, and foster feelings of physical and psychological security. We tap into a Harvard business review article to identify some signs that leaders can watch out for to recognize burnout:
These are harder to notice and identify and often lead to stronger signals of burnout. Managers should watch out for signs of weariness, resignation, or sadness and anxiety reflecting as an employee disengaging from work. Another manifestation of passive burnout is disengagement by employees, often reflected in tardiness, a cynical attitude to goals and efforts, and apathy.
Watch out for non-work-related signs such as apathy and discontinuation of healthy lifestyle practices or personal interests and hobbies. Most often, work-related burnout reflects starkly in individuals’ daily life. Also watch out for clear instances of impatient behavior, inappropriate emotional responses, a lack of involvement in group efforts, or discontent expressed by employees who were usually more diplomatic.
How to prevent and manage burnout?
Prioritize one-on-one meetings
Be it distributed workplaces or a physical work setting, a face-to-face interaction with your teammates is your pole star to fostering culture and well-being. Schedule thoughtful and regular feedback sessions, ask good questions, and stay mindful of cultivating a culture of communication, recognition, and safety in your teams.
When you show your employees that their work matters and that it is appreciated, it not only encourages good work in the future but it allows them to take a break from the stress of completing tasks. A two-way conversation can also allow managers to recognize whether an employees’ job demands are manageable and fair.
Manage team workload
Use data to inform the workload distribution amongst your team members. A growing concern is the prevalence of working post working hours. Since remote workplaces don’t stipulate or monitor work hours, employees tend to overwork, leading to exhaustion. Stay mindful of whether you are allocating reasonable workloads, whether you are adequately staffed, and if you have equipped your team to be successful at their tasks – be it through information sharing, training, or/and provision of tools.
Also, pay special attention to work allocation and after-work patterns for teams working across time zones. Utilizing workplace analytics platforms can help understand work activity patterns outside work hours and help structure workloads to fit within a reasonable time frame.
Structure lean and efficient processes
Most often, a team’s processes such as constant synchronous work patterns or a culture of staying “always on” lead to burnout due to overwork. It’s imperative that managers craft and analyze processes that prioritize outputs as an indicator of success. Successful leaders also promote async work to address burnout simply by allowing work patterns that promote focus time to enhance productivity.
Using the right tools can help streamline successful processes. Depending on data and technology to track projects and share updates asynchronously and using insights from workplace analytics can provide a unified view of a workplace so that teams don’t have to adopt tiresome synchronous communication processes.
Prioritize debriefing sessions
Your teams need to know what went well, what was missed, and what can be done as a team effort to achieve better results. Not only does this help employees to share workloads, but it also allows individuals to rely on teammates for best practices and help at crossroads. Studies have shown that when a team spends at least 15 minutes debriefing after a project, they exhibit lesser signals of burnout.
Promote work-life balance in a top-down approach
In high-performing teams, work-life balance is critical to ensuring the well-being of teammates and this practice is successful when it starts at the leadership level. When leaders prioritize their personal lives, it sends a signal that employees can and should do the same as well. Conversely, if leaders spent weekends on work correspondence, even if they didn’t expect reciprocity, it places stress on employees who might tend to think that they are expected to be working on weekends too.
Enforce practices of vacations, planned breaks, and short stress-relieving activities for your team. These could be as simple as encouraging healthy practices or taking a 5-minute walk in the middle of a workday or prioritizing sleep and nutrition.
Use a factual and data-driven approach to stay aware of what burnout signs and factors are most applicable for your team members while incorporating regular conversations around those factors to prevent burnout. In parallel, identify and manage processes such as poor or incomplete communication, or lack of training, that might lead to burnout.
Identify a larger purpose
Make space for conversations about employee goals, purposes, and priorities. Find ways to connect individual priorities to organizational mission and vision statements. This will help employees to feel connected to their jobs with more perspective rather than short-term motivators.
Helping employees recover from burnout
Chances are, some of your employees are already struggling with varying degrees of burnout. It is essential that you identify the right signs and symptoms and step in with meaningful, long-term intervention mechanisms to support your teammates through their recovery. You can start by encouraging one-on-one and larger organization-wide conversations about stressors and how to handle them. Making a judgment-free and action-oriented space for discussions on mental health, well-being, and burnout signals will encourage employees to share their problems that managers and leaders can solve.
Another great way to help teams manage their well-being is by using data to support practices of visibility, collaboration, and fairness. Culture plays a staggering role in preventing and managing burnout and the modern workplace has to be built by data-driven practices that embody fairness, connectedness, and transparency.
Hatica’s work analytics platform identifies imbalances in work allocation, risks to focus time, tendencies to work after-hours, and other metrics that can signal burnout in your teams and alerts leaders to take action. Discover how Hatica can help your engineering teams thrive in the new normal of work.