When work culture demands 24/7 availability, it isn't surprising that more employees are feeling burned out.
A January 2017 survey by Future Workplace and workforce management software company Kronos found that nearly half of HR leaders say employee burnout is responsible for up to half of their annual workforce turnover.
Understanding the root causes of burnout are essential first steps to staving it off. The study found that unfair compensation (41%), unreasonable workload (32%), and too much overtime or after-hours work (32%) are the top three contributors to burnout. Employees also felt overburdened due to poor management (30%), having no clear connection to corporate strategy (29%), and a negative workplace culture. To eliminate burnout, some companies are moving to tackle the key causes head-on.
Zappos's well-publicized "holacracy" management approach flattens the traditional hierarchy and gives employees more freedom to direct their own career paths. The rollout caused confusion—it can be tough not having a boss watching over your shoulder. Zappos offered a buyout to those who didn't agree with the structure, and a reported 18% of employees took the deal, bringing Zappos' turnover that year to 30%.
Then the company was left with a new challenge: When people have no titles but similar job roles with varying responsibilities, what's fair compensation? In 2016, the company worked with an outside consultant to review worker pay levels to ensure employees are compensated competitively, says Bhawna Provenzano, Zappos’s head of benefits. She says the Las Vegas-based company also shared findings with employees to help them understand how their compensation compared to market data.
"It’s definitely something we haven’t quite completely figured out," she says.
Having the ability to make at least some decisions about how you spend your time also serves as a hedge against burnout, says Joyce Maroney, director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos. As long as wages are not substandard, employees who can make decisions about job roles and feel they have choices will be more engaged. "And generally speaking, the data says engaged employees do a better job for your customers, they're more loyal to your company, and they’re going to stay longer. All good things flow from that," she says.
Giving employees the freedom to find meaning in their work and make an impact pays off, says Michael C. Mankins, coauthor of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, and a partner in management consulting company Bain & Company’s San Francisco office and a leader in the firm’s Organization practice.
"Some people reach burnout at 40 hours a week, some people reach burnout at 90 hours a week. It's very dependent on the individual, and it's very dependent on how much autonomy and impact that individual feels they have in their job. If you have no autonomy and you're having no impact, you'll probably burn out at 40 hours a week," he says.
At Los Angeles real estate brokerage Halton Pardee + Partners, founder and CEO Tami Halton Pardee used to hire people she liked. But as her business grew, she realized she needed to hire people who were suited to the type of work and high expectations her team had. She and her team developed a survey that measures what a prospective team member’s strengths are. That helps her place team members accordingly.
She says that such careful vetting of strengths and preferences—who prefers office work versus being out in the field, for example—helps her place people in roles that better suit them, improving satisfaction. Without such vetting, "they end up failing or frustrated," she says. "You want to play to people's strengths so that they feel good about what they're doing every day."
Pardee organizes leisure activities—going to concerts and hosting dinners at her home—to help her team relax. She also delves more deeply into employees' goals and concerns with an annual vision board project that helps identify their goals for the coming year.
Managers also need to be aware of how much they’re expecting of employees, Mankins says. Helping employees manage their energy to enhance productivity includes reducing the organizational drag of email overload and meetings. Mankins says the amount of time spent on these activities typically grows 7% to 8% per year. That "ineffective collaboration" crowds out more important and effective work, he says. Bain uses Microsoft Workplace Analytics to track the workload managers are assigning employees so they can adjust their behavior accordingly.
When Zappos moved to its flatter management structure, company leaders knew that such a sea change in the organization could be taxing for employees. Provenzano says they put a six-month wellness program in place to help employees manage stress. "We sense whether or not we have tension, then we react to it, and do what we need to do," she says.
Good, old-fashioned workplace policies are still important, Maroney says—even though the Kronos survey found that 63% of full-time salaried employees admit that they would work "off the clock" even if it were against company policy. Employers—especially those with hourly workers—should establish clear boundaries for what’s considered work so they are on the right side of compliance and fair labor laws, she says.
In 2016, Kronos adopted an open paid-time-off policy. And while some "unlimited" time-off policies have gotten negative attention because employees tend to take less time off, Maroney says that’s not the case at Kronos, because senior leaders take time off and the human resources department provides managers with guidance on how to take time off. That kind of role modeling and prioritization makes a difference, she says.
"Ultimately, employees look to their managers to set the example. If a manager is sending emails on a regular basis after hours, employees will feel pressured to do so, too. Conversely, if a manager treats a day off truly as a day off by unplugging and trusting their coworkers to step up in their absence, their employee will be much more likely to do so, too," she says.