Beating burnout in your organization

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted plenty of burnout-related issues within organizations that were previously easy to ignore, but this disruption can be a boon for companies and HR leaders willing to commit to introspection and change.

Q: I am seeing clear examples of organizational burnout, including individuals leaving our firm. As an HR leader, what can I do to correct this trend?

A: Assess instead of react

It’s easy to take a broad-stroke approach to the concern of organizational burnout, but reacting to that reality with a knee-jerk, “everything is wrong!” mindset is not only reductive but hinders your ability to initiate change within your organization. There are likely certain aspects of how your organization is operating making it difficult for people to feel productive, welcomed and motivated to stay. 

Taking the time to investigate and evaluate where the problem lies ensures you’ll be in a much better place to offer options for systematic changes to address those issues. Is there an issue with early career transition options where people aren’t sure how to navigate that shift from college to work? Is it that managers are overloaded and unable to take time to have coaching discussions with their employees? Or is it something about your organization’s operations – such as meeting times or work hours – that needs to be addressed?

Redefine accessibility

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lines between work and home blurred substantially. Without constraints of office hours, many organizations expanded people’s productivity because, after all, they were just waking up and going straight to their computers to work.

But that’s not realistic, nor is it sustainable. Over time, people were spending more time working, and less time decompressing. While that may have been sustainable for short bursts of time, we’re now entering the third year of this pandemic; people are exhausted and they’re resentful, and who will they blame? Their company.

Your organization must back up statements that employee health and well-being are important with action. Put up guardrails around how your company will operate – barring an emergency – that prioritizes work/life balance. Mandate employees take a certain amount of vacation days per year, encourage people to take time to disconnect from work, keep meetings to a minimum in terms of frequency and length, and make it clear that your organization values time away from work so employees return as their best selves.

Rework rewards

Many organizations have formal reward or recognition structures, but there are also informal structures that get people recognized for the work they do every day. It’s a powerful sentiment – and one that may need review within your organization. Instead of rewarding those who work the longest, reward those who create the greatest impact in and outside of your organization. Reward those who understand how to balance their lives so they can bring their best selves to work every day.

HR professionals are in a unique position where they’re empowered to break cultural norms around work/life balance. While many organizations glorify “hustle culture” and working long hours and late nights, the law of diminishing returns is in effect here. Research has found productivity falls sharply after 50 hours of work per week and drops even further after 55 hours – meaning more work isn’t always better. Taking steps within your organization to reframe what work merits recognition ensures no one sees it as a badge of honor to never take a day off, but rather that taking time off deserves honor because they’re contributing at a much higher level.

Take time to train

It’s one thing for HR departments to set and implement priorities, but translating that into actionable steps and guidance for leaders is another task entirely. After identifying key sources of burnout within your organization, meet with senior leadership and share why you believe evolving your corporate culture in a certain direction will mitigate employee turnover.

As senior leadership starts embracing this new way of working, they will be more inclined to buy into this new framework. In fact, it is critical they “walk the talk” by being the example.  It is the senior leaders that set the pace for the organization to follow.

At that point, you and your fellow HR professionals should begin meeting one on one with managers to teach them the coaching skills they need to help their employees. If you, as an HR leader, can provide managers with the support they need to recognize their employees for the work they’re doing, that works as a huge benefit to your organization. One of the leading causes of burnout and falling employee retention is a lack of employee appreciation; emphasizing this – regardless of the other factors that contribute to burnout within your organization – will go a long way in reducing employee turnover.

Creating a work environment that offers rich opportunities for employees to grow and prosper, thus enabling them to create amazing outcomes for shareholders and customers, can be a challenge — but it will always be worth the reward.