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Employee Burnout: Advocating for Change in the Workplace

Although Mental Health Awareness Month was in May, there’s never really a bad time to discuss how these issues can impact your workforce. After all, no one’s mental health issues magically disappear come June 1st. While it might seem like a fairly new thing to bring attention to, Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in the U.S. since 1949.  The goal is not only to bring awareness to, but to remove the stigma attached to mental illness and mental health conditions. Over 50 million Americans reported dealing with mental health issues in 2019.

You’ve probably seen plenty of blogs and LinkedIn posts related to bringing awareness, but what can you do as an employer? There’s one thing that can make a big difference – recognize, acknowledge and provide help for employee burnout. It may seem like just a buzzword, but employee burnout is a very real thing and the impact can be felt both in the workplace and at home.

Don’t think it affects your company? The statistics are overwhelming. Employee burnout is so much more than just needing a vacation, regardless of how much PTO your company offers. Consider how many times a day you think about your job, or something work-related. Now, imagine that every time these thoughts entered your head, you feel exhausted, defeated, frustrated or anxious. That’s how employees feel when they’re experiencing work-related burnout. Plenty of people were struggling with this before the COVID-19 pandemic, but staff shortages across all industries have magnified the existing problem. Here are some signs that your management and HR teams should be on the lookout for:

  • Physical or mental exhaustion
  • Hypersensitivity to feedback or suggestions
  • Decreased productivity
  • Disengagement/isolation (especially when this is out of character)
  • Rising absenteeism

The reasons behind burnout are plentiful, and very unique to the individual. The ones we hear the most are unmanageable workloads, unfair treatment, poor relationship with or lack of support from superiors, mandatory overtime, or unclear parameters in their role.

Foster a culture where mental health & self-care is not taboo

Employees who are encouraged to bring their “whole self” to work feel more comfortable taking needed time off without feeling they have to justify it. Whether they call it a “mental health day,” or just request days without explanation, it’s vital for them to know that it’s not frowned upon (provided proper notice is given and company procedures are followed). When they return, let them know you’re glad to have them back and give them some breathing room to catch up instead of demanding updates and reports their first day back.

Make sure employees have access to affordable mental health services

If employees can’t easily access or afford to seek mental health service, they probably won’t. Most companies with ACA-compliant plans cover these services, but of course there are limitations. Counselors, therapists and other mental health care providers saw such an influx of patients early in the pandemic that most of them have either stopped accepting new patients or have waiting lists that are several months out…or indefinite. Plus, there’s the issue of finding a provider in-network and what hours they keep. Most therapists offer virtual sessions now, but also still keep banker’s hours. If an employee needs one hour a week away from work to meet with a therapist, it’s not that different from allowing an hour for an injured worker to attend a physical therapy session on work time. Neither of them will break the bank, and it could improve their attitude and performance at work. If they’re struggling to find help, let them know that there are stop-gap measures available like TalkSpace and BetterHelp, which are web-based, on-demand therapy options.

Consider flexible scheduling

We know this is easier said than done, but it goes a long way. Unlimited PTO isn’t an option for all businesses, and if an employee feels that underperformance might get them terminated or placed on a performance improvement program, they won’t take time off. We’ve seen our clients offer flexibility in a variety of ways – four-day work weeks, summer hours (leaving early one or more days a week during summer), a couple “freebie” hours to take each week as needed for medical appointments, personal business, etc. Some companies even provide paid time off for their employees to volunteer for a non-profit. While it isn’t technically downtime, doing good and helping others can do wonders for self-esteem. Flexibility is always given to salaried and management employees when a problem arises at home. Hourly employees also have car troubles, pipes bursting and kids who wake up with fevers, and they deserve some flexibility, too.

Let them know you’re listening

More importantly, actually listen. If you’re asking for employee feedback, acknowledge that you hear them and what you plan to act on. Not every bit of employee feedback is actionable – but you should dig in when you notice recurring themes in surveys and annual reviews about pressure, deadlines, difficult leaders, and the need for more guidance. If you think employees are unlikely to share their true thoughts with leadership or HR, consider utilizing a trusted neutral employee internally (maybe from another department) to host feedback meetings and suggestion sessions.

Forget the carrot and stick

It’s not always necessary to tie rewards to performance metrics. A pizza party is just as well-loved by employees when you’re just saying thank you to the entire team for doing their best and working together. When you hold bonuses and rewards hostage until/unless certain benchmarks are hit, you’ll end up with a sorely defeated team when they get nothing for falling short of a goal they worked very hard to reach. Do your best to ensure that anyone with direct reports isn’t using punitive language or actions, or shame to try to drum up better performance from their team.

There are dozens of ideas out there to avoid employee burnout, and all it takes on your part is a little research to determine the right fit for your organization. The labor market is very competitive and will be for some time, and this attrition is avoidable. For every company not valuing their employees’ well-being, there are 10 companies that are (who’d love to hire that great employee right out from under you).

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