Frontline employees have played an essential role in helping communities navigate the ongoing pandemic. Now, many of the grocery, retail, delivery and food service workers people that have relied on are calling it quits. In fact, 45% of frontline employees have decided to leave their jobs according to “The State of the Frontline Work Experience in 2021,” a recently released research report from Arlington Research and Axonify.

The report provides new insight into their perspective, including the workplace challenges contributing to a spike in turnover and resulting labor shortages. These issues include low wages, lack of appreciation and inflexible working conditions. However, burnout is the most-cited reason for frontline employee turnover (57.8%), while poor compensation is fourth on the list (51.7%).

People often say they’re “burned out” when they’re tired after working extra hours or completing big projects. But that’s not the true meaning of the term. According to Herbert Freudenberger’s “The High Cost of High Achievement,” burnout is “a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress” characterized by exhaustion, a loss of connection with work and feelings of reduced professional ability. It’s more than a temporary personal feeling. It’s a persistent workplace problem that results in poor performance, less engagement and more turnover. This is especially true on the frontline, where people work physically and mentally demanding jobs with limited autonomy, inconsistent schedules and varying levels of support.

Burnout can’t be fixed with an extra day off or a few quick breathing exercises. Extinguishing burnout must be a company-wide priority and learning and development (L&D) has a considerable role to play. Here are five tactics L&D can apply to reduce frontline burnout:

1. Embed Burnout Awareness During Workplace Training

Identifying the problem is the first step to overcoming burnout, but only 39.2% of frontline workers have access to mental health benefits or related training. L&D can help overcome this limitation by making burnout a recurring theme within workplace training programs. During onboarding, make sure new employees know how to recognize the signs of burnout. Train frontline managers to mitigate common causes of burnout, such as unmanageable workloads, lack of role clarity and unreasonable time pressure. Provide easy-to-find, on-demand resources on burnout prevention that include relevant tips for every role.

2. Share Burnout Stories

It’s easy to miss the signs of burnout when they’re discussed only in the abstract. Employees may not realize they’re experiencing chronic stress until they suffer negative consequences at work or home. Make burnout feel more real and familiar by sharing stories from employees who recognized and overcame their struggles. Leverage peer influence to help employees understand they’re not alone and that it’s OK to ask for help with mental health concerns at work.

3. Reduce Friction in the Employee Experience

Imagine trying to do your job without email or other office applications. This may sound lovely in concept, but most knowledge workers employees rely on these tools for access to timely, reliable information. Frontline workers continue to rely on antiquated methods, such as bulletin board postings and pre-shift huddles. Their struggle to keep up as the workplace changes is a constant source of frustration that has a major impact on their ability to do their jobs well. Poor communication is just one example of friction within the employee experience that often goes unnoticed while increasing the likelihood of burnout. As you partner with stakeholders to solve performance problems, look for similar friction points and recommend improvements as part of your enablement strategies.

4. Prioritize Upskilling and Cross-training

Lack of interest in everyday work is another major contributing factor to frontline turnover. Completing the same job tasks over and over and dealing with the same problems day after day can become both physically and mentally exhausting. Eventually, employees may disconnect from their work and the organization’s mission. Provide frontline workers with some much-needed variety (while also providing the operation with added flexibility) by introducing regular upskilling and cross-training opportunities. Apply scalable tactics such as microlearning and personalization to fit ongoing development into the busy workday — without disrupting business activity. Avoid the tendency to limit additional training to top performers by making learning a standard part of everyone’s job.

5. Don’t Add to the Problem

Assessments that require 100% passing scores (or else jobs may be at risk). Compliance training that takes hours (that employees don’t have available) to complete. Training on critical job updates that can only be completed on a computer in the manager’s office (that’s far away from where people do their work and is always locked). These are just a few of the unfortunate ways L&D may add friction and frustration to the frontline employee experience. In addition to providing training that helps mitigate burnout, make sure L&D practices aren’t compounding the problem. Maintain a current understanding of your real-world employee personas, including factors such as worker motivations, tools, challenges and availability. Design learning and support solutions that fit into the frontline worker’s everyday realities and clearly help them improve their job performance.

In Conclusion

Burnout has been a pervasive workplace problem for many years. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue and prompted many employees to rethink their relationship with work. Now, businesses are experiencing unprecedented brain drain and staffing shortages as part of The Great Resignation / Reprioritization. It’s clear that burnout prevention must become a priority as we rethink the employee experience. While training alone will not fix the problem, L&D has a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to contribute to this effort by applying proven practices that can alleviate many of the most common causes of frontline burnout.

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