Burnout is often a simple formula, according to psychologists: increasing demands + diminishing resources = burnout. And it’s not just a stressful couple of weeks that causes it. Burnout is serious and can greatly affect employee performance and health, says David Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C.
“Burnout is related to stress. Chronic stress affects motivation, confidence and job performance itself. Over time this makes you exhausted, unmotivated and ineffective,” he says. Without addressing it, it can get worse and make you physically sick. A study by the APA says 37 percent of workers feel tense or stressed during a normal work day — which means at least 37 percent of employees are potential burnout candidates.
Here’s what Ballard says employers can do to help avoid this.
The perception that something is unfair contributes to burnout, Ballard says. “This could be reflected in relationships with supervisors, compensation, other benefits or workload,” he says. A culture of transparency and open communication can help.
One way to develop this culture is to increase communication, Ballard says. Tell people what’s going on and why. Transparent pay structures and actively seeking input about what employees like and don’t like about their jobs also can help. Ballard suggests taking the pulse of your organization through surveys.
He also recommends an open-door policy; when there is conflict or the perception of unfairness, “it’s important for an employee to have an avenue to communicate that to someone and keep it from simmering below the surface,” he says.
Work isn’t always the sole cause of burnout; sometimes it’s a combination of work and home life. Personal demands and scheduling conflicts can make it difficult to get everything accomplished at work, Ballard says. Giving staff an appropriate degree of autonomy and flexibility can help.
“Lack of control or the feeling of being in a situation that you know is bad and you can’t fix it has been linked to increasing stress. If you have some say in how you allocate your resources — your time, energy and other resources — you feel in control,” Ballard says. For example, you could let an employee work from home a few hours very early in the morning or late into the evening and still take off a few hours during the day to attend an event at their child’s school.
Many times it’s the most talented employees who burn out, simply because they’re overloaded. It’s simpler and faster to give everything to someone who knows how things work, Ballard says, but at some point that employee will be overwhelmed and this “benefit” won’t be true any longer.
It will take more work and slow things down initially, but an investment in cross-training is the solution here. A learning-and-development plan can help junior employees be ready to move up when needed, and it can give additional skills to employees from different departments and add variety to their jobs. Most importantly, cross-training “can reduce stressful skill gaps and take pressure off overloaded employees,” he says.
The whole point of time off is to escape work, including thinking about it, Ballard says. If an employee doesn’t get a significant mental break, their time away may have no benefit. “Some people acclimate to burnout a bit, and if they’re functioning at a heavy workload, it takes a while to get out of that pattern and actually relax,” he says. Supervisors should encourage employees to take long breaks from time to time, not just a day or two here and there.
Supervisors should also be clear they will not contact the employee while they’re off unless it’s absolutely urgent, he says. One way to make this statement true is to make sure tasks are delegated beforehand. If the employee taking vacation has to complete a mountain of work ahead of time because no one can take their tasks, or they feel like no one is covering their tasks and they’ll return to a mountain of work, this will make it harder for them to decompress, Ballard says.
Burnout, chronic stress and depression are all related, Ballard says. People can cope for a while but eventually it will affect their physical and mental health, he says. A good way to help employees suffering from or on the verge of developing these issues is through your benefits plans.
Make sure your health plan offers good mental health benefits, and consider an employee assistance plan where employees can reach out for further resources, he says. Your organization can also offer stress-management training and other wellness benefits such as fitness, nutrition and sleep counseling. “Low-quality sleep and not enough sleep are strongly linked to burnout. Most people need six hours at minimum,” Ballard says.
Just as vacation provides an extended break from work, other activities can also serve that purpose on a smaller scale. Community involvement, sports and hobbies can be beneficial, he says. “Other things that are challenging and interesting but not work-related can help, as can relaxation through yoga, exercise or meditation,” he says.
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