The Covid pandemic changed everything for business.
Traditional recruitment methods no longer work. After a cursory review of resumes, messages to these job candidates remain unanswered.
New hires frequently “ghost” the company by either not showing up at all or working a few days then disappearing.
Employees – both the veterans and the new hires – are making more demands. They want changes to their work hours, greater flexibility, or a sizable increase in pay. If they don’t receive these asks, then they leave.
As a result, your organization’s workforce has shrunk. With less people to do the work, the responsibilities and deliverables for each employee have increased.
Is it any wonder that the post-pandemic workplace is fraught with high stress and burnout?
According to an April 2021 report by McKinsey & Company, nearly half of employees surveyed reported feeling at least somewhat burned out. However, the researchers believe that the actual extent of workplace burnout it much higher.
The cause of this burnout is attributed to the lack of clear communication about the future by organizational leaders. Without clear communication, employees were found to be 2.9 times more likely to burn out.
And employees’ demands for work-life balance, flexibility, better compensation, and well-being reflect their top hopes and fears for the future.
Workplace Burnout: An Individual or Organizational Problem?
But why should managers care? Isn’t burnout ultimately an individual’s maladaptive response to stress?
Put simply: NO.
The recognition of burnout as a work-related issue made national news in May 2019 when the World Health Organization identified burnout as a workplace phenomenon that occurs when “chronic workplace stress…has not been successfully managed.”
Notice that burnout is described as a workplace (or environmental) issue and NOT an individual’s inability to manage the chronic stressors arising from their workplace.
I contend that it is ultimately the responsibility of organizational leaders to mitigate its chronic workplace stressors.
Rather than labeling stressed out workers as not being “resilient enough,” it’s time to admit that your organization’s policies, processes, procedures, and leadership style are contributing to the problem.
That said, it is true that some personality traits and work habits make workers more conducive to burnout. Based on my research into women’s experiences of job burnout, the “perfect trifecta” for burnout is comprised of being an over-achieving people-pleaser who embodies the persona of an armored warrior at work.
But anyone – female or male – can burn out.
Rather than feeling intimidated by your inability to successfully attend to the differing needs of individual employees, starting from an organizational perspective makes sense.
By critically analyzing your organization’s workplace for unrealistic demands on time and resources as well as the manner, frequency, and quality of your communications with workers, you will be more able to identify those environmental stressors that are creating burnout in your workplace.
Burnout undermines an organization to innovate and compete. It has a quantifiable impact on the bottom line as well as a qualifiable impact on employee morale and engagement.
The connection is quite simple: when employees burn out, organizational performance suffers. Because employees are your only non-duplicatable competitive advantage, burnout renders the organization incapable of achieving strategic goals, innovating for market growth, and sustaining a profitable competitive advantage.
Compassionately and proactively committing to changes within the workplace is not an altruistic, “feel good, “touchy-touchy” assertion. It is not only the most humane way to run a business, but also one of the best ways to create and sustain a responsive, innovative, and profitable enterprise.
Workplace Burnout Is Ubiquitous
As previously mentioned, Covid changed the paradigm by which business operated. While we may dream of things soon returning to “business as usual,” the reality it that we are on the precipice of a “new normal.”
Employees don’t want lip service from organizational leaders about how they much they care about them. They want tangible proof. And they want to be acknowledged, respected, and rewarded.
Without organizational help and support to address the challenges of the post-pandemic workplace, employees are more susceptible to burnout – and burned out employees quit. Often these are the star performers, but just as importantly it’s the lost line workers who have become increasingly difficult to replace.
Burnout, therefore, should be considered the early warning sign of profound problems in the workplace.
Much like in the way that canaries were used by early coal miners to detect the presence of toxic gases within the mine, the dead canary was the warning sign that a lethal environment was present and should be avoided or mitigated:
Perhaps more repugnant is that these birds were kept in cages to prevent them from leaving the mines while they “did their job.” A live bird told the miners that it was safe to enter the mine. The fact that many canaries were sacrificed to ensure the safety of the miners was considered a small price to pay.
Are your employees considered to be expendable canaries in the pursuit of organizational goals?
- Are your organizational policies creating a toxic work environment that all but ensures that your workers will burn out?
- Are the timelines of your projects reasonable?
- Do you clearly communicate strategic goals and then ensure that each employee understands how their job affects attainment of those goals?
- Are your leaders sufficiently vulnerable to engage in two-way conversations that enhance mutual understanding and alignment?
Most importantly, do you view your employees as expendable canaries in the pursuit of organizational goals?
Based on my research that culminated in my research-based Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B‑DOC), long work hours, unclear goals, and poor leadership are just a few of the workplace stressors that are causing your employees to burn out.
It’s therefore time to look at what you are expecting from employees, how you are expecting them to achieve those deliverables, why you’re asking them to take these actions in the first place, who is leading and managing them, and when you’re going to step up to the plate to replace your current workplace stressors with practices that build employee resiliency and engagement.
How to Spot Your Burnout Canaries
In a previous blog post, I shared ways to spot (and help) a burned out employee. But in this post, I’ll discuss some of the organizational warning signs that indicate a burned out workforce.
- Are things going “missing?” I’m not talking about employee theft. Burned out workers tend to quit (or physically leave the organization) in order to escape a work culture dominated by high levels of negative stress. Turnover equals missed employees). Poor performance is seen in missed deadlines. Inaccurate assessment of the market environment often represents an inability to timely responding to emerging opportunities and threats to the organization’s survival.
- Is there a decrease in your “soft skills?” Soft skills are NOT “niceties” – they are necessities. Soft skills such as communication, adaptability, problem-solving, and creativity are integral to overall organizational performance. And these soft skills are only found in your employees – your only non-duplicatable competitive advantage. Have you noticed an increase in employee conflict – either verbal or (even worse) physical? Is the office grapevine rife with examples of employee disharmony, low morale, or intentions to quit? Has the efficiency and effectiveness of your problem-solving and decision-making substantially changed? Are you no longer meeting client needs with better than expected customer service?
- Does the “status quo” reign supreme? Both managers and leaders are necessary for the growth and survival of an organization: managers control in order to maintain the status quo, while leaders challenge existing paradigms in order to innovate and create competitive advantage. When was the last time that an employee who is not responsible for creative product ideas or solutions brought new ideas to organizational leaders? How often to you formally recognize the efforts of employees who have created innovative solutions to issues plaguing the company? Do you listen and consider the warnings presented to you by the change resistors in your organization? Finally, are you afraid to think outside the box?
- Is there an increase in negative outcomes? Burned out workers are emotionally and physically incapable of performing optimally. Don’t let an employee’s long work hours fool you: workaholism is a frequent false cure used by over-achievers who are burning out. Instead, consider the results and outcomes of an employee’s recent decisions. Are your timelines to reach goals reasonable and achievable? Are more employees complaining to HR about their work environment? Their coworkers? Their bosses? Their work-life balance? Taken in a broader context, how’s your company reputation doing? Are your online company reviews less than glowing? Revealing a disturbing downward trend? Are customer complaints also increasing?
- Have you ever considered the role of BURNOUT in these outcomes? Remember: burnout is NOT an employee’s problem. Nor is it an indication that a worker (or group of workers) has a maladaptive response to stress. And despite its prevalence throughout industries and professions, it is NOT inevitable.
I’ve been accused of considering burnout as a factor in every workplace challenge. But there’s a reason for this: burnout negatively impacts employees’ emotional and physical well-being – which, in turn, affects organizational performance that is only achieved through the efforts of individual workers.
Managers and organizational leaders have an obligation – to themselves, to their customers, and to their shareholders – to mitigate those practices contributing to employee burnout.
Eliminating the stressors leading to workplace burnout is a win-win. If you’ve spotted any of these signs, consider them to be canaries in your organization’s coal mine. Recognition is the first step. Immediate proactive responses to eliminate these stressors get you on the road to re-engaging your only non-duplicatable competitive advantage: your employees.
Without burnout, both the organization and its workforce can fully achieve their ultimate potential.
Burnout IS the canary in the coal mine that reflects the health of your organization. How’s your canary doing?
Dr. Geri Puleo is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout. Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout. A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD: More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI).