By Mike Jones, Better Happy Founder
We know that humans are and always have been hardwired to burnout. You can about what we need to know about burnout in my previous article here.
Historically our environment has acted as a natural defence mechanism against widespread burnout. Today, however, thanks to hyper-connectivity created by technology our environment not only doesn't protect against burnout, it encourages it.
People have the option to be connected to work 24/7 at any location in the world. Many people are working from home so the boundaries between home and professional life have become blurred. Our work has also become less physically demanding and more mentally demanding.
All of these factors combined are leading to epidemic levels of stress and burnout in the workplace, unlike anything we've seen before. These stress levels are especially taking their toll on managers and leaders.
When people have been highly stressed for too long they first experience the symptoms of what I coin 'pre-burnout' and then reach full burnout.
I explain how this can look and feel in my previous article on burnout here through my personal story. Simply put in pre-burnout a previously fantastic employee will begin to feel emotionally exhausted which forces them into the behaviours of a disengaged employee. They can be tired, lack confidence, negative and difficult. This is obviously bad for the individual and their health but also bad for the business. Not only does the business miss out on the productivity of that person but the people around this previously positive person are going to be affected by the newfound negativity of this person.
When an employee reaches full burnout there are two common outcomes:
1 - Long term sick
2 - Leaving the business
We have to accept that our new environment supports burnout and that it's our best employees that are most at risk of suffering it. If we don't proactively approach this in our businesses we will stay on a conveyor belt of our best people burning out and leaving every 2-5 years.
So what can we do to prevent burnout? After reading my previous article on burnout - here - I've found the following five tips to be most effective. Note - when I mention training I primarily refer to your managers, senior staff and people leaders.
5 ways to prevent burnout in your workplace in 2022
1 - Raise Awareness of Burnout
Sorry, not very exciting but an essential first step. In this modern technologically developed world we have gotten used to finding an app or piece of software to address any problems we face. Whilst there are lots of software and app out there to help with burnout, none will make much difference if our people aren't aware of the issue. Your people need to understand that:
They are hard-wired to work too much,
Today it's easier than it's ever been before to work too much
Working or thinking about work too much can lead to burnout - emotional exhaustion
I've delivered training on this to hundreds of professionals and find that the key to getting this message across powerfully is by highlighting the negative impacts of burnout on health and performance at work. Hearing the effect it has on performance ensures that your high-performing 'career at all costs' driven people listen as well.
2 - Ensure leaders are promoting work-life balance
Leaders - and this includes managers - behaviours have more influence on other people's actions than they often realise. If the leader of the company is working 12 hours a day managers notice this and think that's the behaviour they need to emulate. If managers are working crazy hours, employees notice this and think they should be doing the same also. Culture travels downwards.
The effects of people leaders working too much are by and large negatively exponential. Whereas some people can legitimately work 12+ hours a day 6-7 days a week and still be happy - Elon Musk is purportedly a famous example - for the vast majority of people, this is unhealthy and unsustainable.
We don't want our people to just be at work a lot, we want our people to help us achieve company objectives to a high standard. It's entirely possible that the latter can be done without someone having to sacrifice most of their life - leaders and managers should be the first to demonstrate this.
3 - Train managers to create life schedules
If your people work too much not only do they accumulate unhealthy levels of stress, they also neglect their personal lives. It's a simple mathematical equation. There are only so many hours in a day and days in a week. The time we make for doing or thinking about work, the more time we take away from personal life and personal duties.
The challenge is that as previously mentioned, many of us, especially those of us who are highly engaged in our work, put work at the top of our mental priority list. When work is at the top of the list - no matter how high up our other priorities are such as family, health, social life, fun etc - everything else is still second or lower. I witness the effects of this over and over again. Highly competent intelligent talented people that neglect their health for years on end because all of their available energy goes into career and looking after the kids. There's no time left for them and by the time they get to their mid 30's/40's they feel like a shadow of their former selves.
In my previous article here I explain how I put myself through exactly this with my first business. The irony is my business was a gym and I was a sought-after Personal Trainer, yet I still let my health slip at the expense of work.
Your people need to be taught the concept of being sensibly selfish. Giving themselves enough time to protect their health and happiness so they can be the best version of themselves for as long as possible. A great starting point for this is creating an ideal day and week schedule. This schedule of course includes work but it has to start with personal life. I make training participants draw this out. Where does your sleep fit? Where is your you time? How are you improving your health and where does that fit in?
Although this process sounds simple and obvious, I've found the majority of people, including business owners and CEOs often don't have this in place. Get used to making this a part of your culture.
4 - Use the Objectives Key Results (OKR) framework in your business/team
Goals are the key to success and growth. But as I found out in my first business goals can also lead to overwhelm. Without clear goals teams become unfulfilled but with too many goals teams become stressed and ineffective. It's a balancing act and most businesses/teams seem to bounce between the two extreme ends of the scale. One moment they've lost track of their goals and are working in a purely reactive way responding to whatever opportunities come in. The next minute they're planning to take over the world with 42 new goals that are so far-ranging no traction can ever be made.
Luckily for us, some very successful companies such as Google have already faced this problem and found an effective solution. You might be telling yourself what Google doesn't apply to your team or business but it's worth noting that Google adopted this approach when they had 50 employees and they still use it today.
The framework is called OKR [Objectives and key results].
If you'd like to geek out more on OKR I recommend reading Measure What Matter by John Doerr.
I facilitate workshops on this process with managers and teams regularly and it always creates clarity. OKR imposes rules on goal - as we'll now refer to as objectives - setting. Simply put you can't choose 3-5 objectives in any month or quarter (the cadence should be decided by you). Each objective you set must have at least one and more than five measurable key results attached to it. Ideally, there should be 3-5 company-level objectives with key results set for the year, each department or individual can then use these larger objectives to set their own.
The aim of this post isn't to go into detail on How-To OKR but provide insight. By implementing OKR businesses and teams are forced to do something they're not doing enough - Prioritise. OKR forces us to recognise that when we try to achieve everything, we achieve nothing.. other than increased rates of overwhelm and burnout. It also helps us with tip 5 because once we have clear objectives it's a lot easier to know what we shouldn't be doing. I'll leave this tip with an apt diagram from Greg Mckeown's Essentialism (also well worth a read).
5 - Train/encourage people to challenge work
Leading on nicely from tip 4 we have training and encouraging people to challenge work. If people in your business, especially managers aren't challenging or saying no to work proposed to them you have a problem.
Humans are hard-wired to want to fit in, please others and avoid conflict. This means we find it easy to say yes to things and difficult to say no. In business, this is a recipe for disaster. When already overloaded managers/employees say yes to another project or piece of work, it's like adding more air to the already full tyre. It's already at capacity and somethings got to give. The problem is the more avoidant the person is of conflict, the more they're going to try and contain that air in themselves. Often the person in this position is a manager.
As they take on more work they have to compromise. The standard of work drops and that makes the manager feel more stressed. The team starts to feel fed up. Fed up they are doing too much, fed up of doing too much not great standard work. Instead of feeling like valuable contributors to the organisation, they start to feel like cogs in the system that no one notices. This leads not only to higher rates of burnout especially amongst the managers but also higher rates of employee turnover because people just don't like working this way. I think a manager's ability to confidently and proactively challenge work is one of the most valuable skills a manager can have.
A manager can only do this when they have clear objectives so stage 4 is important. A department can only set good objectives when the company has communicated 3-5 yearly objectives and key results. This enables us to see how a lack or presence of clear direction at the company level can dictate the prevalence of burnout amongst its people.
Although burnout is a real problem that's likely to get worse over the next few years, you don't have to view it as a problem in your business. By taking a proactive approach, and providing training, support and resources to your people on the subject of burnout you can increase engagement levels amongst your staff. You will also make yourself a more attractive employer that genuinely cares for its people. The key to addressing burnout in the workplace isn't just working less. It's teaching people to work smarter whilst creating an environment that supports balance. Neither of these things is difficult.
How are you going to approach burnout in your business? Leave it for another few years and hope it doesn't happen or turn into an asset, tackle it head on and empower your people?
Mike Jones Better Happy Founder
Mike founded Better Happy in 2018.
He now works with a variety of businesses ranging from small accountancies up to large organisations such as Travelodge on improving employee happiness. Mike's vision and the vision of Better Happy is 'Every employee happy, every business thriving'
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