Although concern over employee burnout has amplified since the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is it’s been a problem for a while. Shifts in technology and ways of working have ramped up an “always on” feeling among professionals and the booming economy has increased pressure on service and manufacturing workers to meet demands, leading to burnout across the board.
Burnout can result in higher turnover, lower productivity and greater health care costs. Although there are a number of ways in which individual factors can also affect worker burnout, the reality is, burnout is more affected by the employee experience than individual behaviors. Yet the “solutions” for burnout typically focus on the individual (e.g., mental and physical health management) rather than on the organization and its culture. While helpful, these don’t solve the root issue.
Many employees respond to burnout by starting a clean slate in a new occupation, and sometimes in a completely different role. Shifting to a new employer, however, doesn’t have to be the only way to hit the “refresh” button. Accord to Kincentric’s 2022 Global Trends in Engagement report, employees with the opportunity to work on new assignments and gain new skills were four times more likely to stay with their current employer. Introducing and trying new things not only can help reenergize employees, but also help them feel more prepared for current challenges and future needs.
Research also shows that due to an increase in pressure from upper management, mid-level managers’ engagement levels have significantly dropped. One of the mitigating factors for this decline in engagement was for leadership to provide support and opportunity for development so that these mid-level managers could feel confident with adjusting to the changes in their role and responsibilities. Managers who were provided with learning and development (L&D) opportunities were significantly more engaged than those who did not.
Kincentric’s research shows that many of the work concerns expressed by employees can tie back to burnout — including lack of role clarity, poor change management, insufficient recognition and lack of appropriate development. However, effectively managing these experience elements can help create a more human-centered work experience. Although there are many paths that can be taken for each, let’s evaluate the directions that you can take to minimize burnout.
How to Prevent Burnout for a Human-centered Workplace
Prioritize (and deprioritize) work: Burnout can be driven by excessive ambiguity and over prioritization. For the first, the stress comes from trying to figure out what you should be doing and the second from trying to figure out how everything can possibly get done. The result is often a feeling of “grinding” and running in circles that results in burnout.
Reevaluating and realigning expectations for each role can help people create focus and determine those activities they should be spending their time on. It also can help the organization better identify what new skills and abilities employees should be developing. Role clarity can provide a reassurance that the employee has the capabilities to do what is being asked of them — aligning their strengths to the organization’s needs.
Related to role clarity is the need for leaders to be very mindful about the priorities they are setting for managers and employees and, as critically, to help identify what to deprioritize. Too often burnout is the result of employees feeling like there is an endless heap of critical priorities without any sense of how these fit with existing expectations.
Future vision and change management: A common myth is that people hate change. The reality is that many people hate poorly managed change — including a lack of communication, not being involved in things that affect them and no feedback loop to revisit decisions and course correct. Poorly managed change makes it a passive experience for people — something that is happening to them rather than something they are participating in. When this becomes chronic, it can lead to feelings of helplessness, which in turn can translate into burnout over time.
Well-managed change enables people to feel like they are an active part of the change. This can be manifested in the experience in several ways – ranging from using feedback and input as the impetus for change to providing clear check points of progress to empowering people to help shape and maximize the goals for the change.
Another key component is leadership providing a clear vision for the future in a way that excites and motivates people about that future. When leaders provide a clear direction and connect people to that direction, employees feel they play part in the coming changes, and thus, any negative feelings about the changes may be diminished, and in turn, the risk of feelings of burnout can be reduced.
Recognizing your employees’ best efforts: Recognition is more than just a pat on the back – it is a sense of validation and encouragement. It doesn’t always have to be an actual reward, but can include involving people in decisions, coaching to help enhance employee performance and making time for training or a stretch opportunity.
Those who feel recognized for their accomplishments have a better chance of feeling valued. This feeling greatly influences how energized people can feel about their work and is critical to engagement. Being recognized is important to a lot of employees today. According to a Great Place to Work survey, 37% respondents say positive recognition helps them perform at their best. With a sudden shift to hybrid/remote work environments, employees may feel worried that their efforts won’t be seen. And workers in service and manufacturing may feel like they’re working extra hard to cover staffing gaps, meet increased demands and manage supply chain issues, but are not being acknowledged for this extra effort.
Top performers often leave organizations because they feel unrecognized or that the organization is recognizing people for the wrong reasons (e.g., lower performing but more tenured individuals). Expanding the ways in which the organization recognizes (and not just how it rewards) employees can help bring a sense of value to one’s work and make burnout less likely.
The best cure is preventative: There is no one or easy way to help bring people back from burnout. Once an employee feel burnt out, it may take significant time and effort for trust and confidence to rebuild and restore their energy and confidence. But as discussed, creating a human-centered employee experience — one that helps to recognize, develop, empower, inform and involve employees in the company — can provide the right support and balance to help reduce the risk of burnout across the organization.
There will always be additional individual factors that might contribute to an employee feeling burnt out. However, unlike individual factors, creating an engaging experience is readily within the organization’s control and can help to energize, focus and enable people to do their best without sacrificing their physical and mental well-being.