Founder and Chief Culture Officer of Ideal Outcomes, Inc. Author of the new book Culture Ignited: 5 Disciplines for Adaptive Leadership.
“You’ve been so successful you’ve created a culture of burnout.”
That’s what I told senior management at a major media company recently. The company had launched a new project in a new space. Everyone had worked extremely hard to meet a tight deadline. They’d been 100% focused. They’d put in extra hours. Pushed the boulder to the top of the mountain. And then briefly celebrated their success—they had pride of ownership in what they’d accomplished—before moving on to the next project, with yet another deadline.
The management team was concerned and puzzled that since the major triumph there had been a drop-off in both email communication and active participation in meetings. All of a sudden it didn’t feel like the same place at all. The harsh truth I pinpointed was that the success followed by the immediate drive for further success had come at a price. The team was exhausted. With no time to recuperate, they didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm for the next project. Key influencers at various levels throughout the company had decreased their level of engagement and it was permeating throughout the organization. Their success had turned toxic because they hadn’t taken a breather before moving on to the next big thing.
My client is not alone. A staggering 81% of employees feel at risk of burnout according to a survey of nearly 11,000 C-suite executives, HR leaders and employees, by international consulting firm Mercer. The chief reason? The feeling that they are not sufficiently rewarded for their efforts.
A Future Forum survey found that 42% of workers said they were already burned out, a true danger signal as workers experiencing burnout are three times more likely to be ready to look for a new job elsewhere. Those most affected? Nearly half of workers under the age of 30. A survey by The Mary Christie Institute, a national thought leadership organization, found 53% of recent college graduates between the ages of 22 and 28 said they experienced burnout at work at least once a week.
So, what can you do to curb burnout in your organization?
Create a safe workplace.
From a leadership standpoint, you should create an environment where members of your team ask for help without fear of a negative reaction. I’m really deliberate about creating a safe space for people to express themselves. Recently, during a period where the workload became extremely intense, one of my team felt comfortable raising her hand and saying, “I’m saturated, and I’m getting to my breaking point. You need to get me additional resources to maintain our quality of work.” That’s exactly the kind of culture and work environment I want.
One of the fundamental drivers of burnout is isolation, especially today when many workers are remote either full-time or part-time. Leaders must go out of their way to make everyone feel included and important. Find ways to get them off that desert island. This might be an increase in one-on-one conversations, stepping up bi-weekly team calls to once a week and scheduling regular in-person team events.
Schedule free time.
Burnout level has almost certainly increased in step with the increase in working from home. It’s so much harder to separate from work if your desk is a mere three paces away in your living room. Make a point of having your employees build into their calendar an official lunch break and shorter mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks. Encourage them to go for a walk outside. Tune out. And follow your own advice, too. You’ll return refreshed, reenergized and ultimately be more productive. One of my colleagues who’s deskbound most of the day sets an alarm on his phone to remind himself to get up and stretch every half hour.
Look after yourself.
Leaders burn out, too. Remember the flight attendant safety instruction as the plane begins to taxi: “Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else.”
Your emotional control is paramount. If you have a meltdown, it has a major impact on the entire organization. In our executive coaching, we emphasize the need to breathe deep, take time for reflection, exercise, play golf or another sport or take up a hobby. Separate yourself from work to avoid burnout.
Take a real vacation.
I’ve been shocked by the number of client Zoom or Teams meetings I’ve attended in the last few months that had participants who were supposed to be on vacation. Sometimes they were even out of the country in different time zones. My sense is that they were participating out of fear; that they couldn’t detach; that they didn’t want to risk being out of sight and out of mind. It’s not a healthy company culture where this exists. Think about major sports teams. They all have downtime between seasons. It’s unrealistic to expect star players to keep performing at their best without time off—and it’s the same for your business stars.
Acknowledging employees for their efforts and high performance goes a long way toward creating a healthy workplace culture. This elevates their sense of belonging to an organization that cares, and it contributes to a climate where signs of burnout can be caught early and corrected.
Don’t underestimate the dangers of burnout and be aware that it probably exists in your organization at some level. Make it a priority to keep your eyes and ears open so you can calm things down before it becomes a red hot issue. Create an environment where team members can have an open and honest dialogue with you if they feel overloaded and overwhelmed.
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