With fast paced deadlines, demanding clients and digital 24x7 work environment, it’s not unusual for employees to suffer from stress and fatigue at the workplace. As per the data by ComPsych survey 2013, over 60 percent of individuals surveyed in North America reported high level of stress, fatigue and burnout. While a certain degree of anxiety or stress could be beneficial for immediate results, in long run, chronic or perpetual stress leading to burnout could potentially lead to employee’s poor performance, low morale and attrition.
The three key symptoms of burnout, as identified by psychologists like Christina Maslach are (i) physical and mental exhaustion, (ii) cynicism and (iii) inefficacy. These three symptoms are inter-related and could be expressed in varying degree. While exhaustion inhibits the cognitive and physical ability, cynicism refers to instances where an individual feels detached and callous about the work. Simultaneously, the feeling of inefficacy or incompetency could also crop up, further amplifying the instances of cynicism and exhaustion. Employees displaying burn out symptoms could have contagious effects on other team members and negatively impact the firm’s productivity and work culture. Therefore for the benefit of the employees and organization, proactive and pre-emptive steps to identify and address the stressor elements, leading to burnout, become vital.
Identification of Stressors
The first stage for tackling the issue of burnout is identifying the employees or managers displaying or complaining about the symptoms of burnout. While identifying the employees suffering from burnout symptoms could be easy, pinpointing the causal stressor is tricky, as multiple visible and latent variables could be involved in the process. These variables could be related to individual’s work style or to the managerial practices honed at the workplace. While it is tempting to attribute burnout to individual’s resilience, and specifically to their style of work (such as working overtime, taking fewer breaks, inefficiency, poor food habits, multitasking, proving self-worth, knowledge or establish authority etc.) the design and demands of work itself is vital in pushing them in such hazardous behaviour. The organization’s leadership and managerial style could be equally important in determining the well-being or burnout of the employees. For instance, toxic leadership or work culture, conflict, understaffing, unrealistic deadlines or targets could well become key causes for stress and burnout among the employees.
The managers or team leaders could play a vital role in seeking regular feedback and probe the cases of potential burnout among the team members. At individual level, self care related to food and sleeping habits, exercise, social connections, meditation or practicing mindfulness could help in overcoming the work related stress and anxiety. However, if more and more number of employees identifies themselves with symptoms of burnout, it could be a signal for the need to review and tweak the design of work itself. The four points for effectively handling the issues of burnout at organization levels are:
1. Management that listens:
Wide array of tools are available at the management disposal to understand the employee’s concerns and work sentiments. For instance, direct meetings with superiors, speak-out programme, suggestion committee, open-door policy can raise red flags before it’s too late. The work culture should have enough internal formal and informal communication channels where issues related with work stress and burnout could be discussed. A quick pulse survey or open grievance communication channel will go long way in early identification of the stressors involved. However, learning or listening about grievances or anxiety about work is only half part of the story, as willingness to act on the issues raised, in an emphatic manner, is still at the discretion of the organization.
2. Realistic goals and expectations:
Some organizations like to place unrealistic expectations and keep the employees under tremendous pressure to work for long hours. In the name of multitasking an employee could be loaded with too many tasks leading to poor concentration and exhaustion. The tendency to overload employees with work should be resisted and the culture of setting limits on workload, after assessing the collective capacity should be encouraged. During the meetings managers can often ask what additional support could be extended from the organization to achieve the envisioned goals. At times the management can even allow the teams to set or choose their individual or collective goals.
3. Redesigning the breaks:
While having daily small breaks are common, sufficient thought could be given to the idea of having some relatively low work load periods during which the employees could work at relaxed pace. In such work design, the employees have more breathing space during which they are recharged for new demanding tasks. The analogy given is that of ‘not sprinting a marathon’ and by giving intermittent relaxed periods, the employees are expected to regain momentum to engage in short sprints (i.e. short-term, intensive goals). The resources required to fulfil the task should be carefully evaluated and enough flexibility on choosing the work style and break time could be given to the employees.
4. Work culture:
An organization should keep a watch for toxic work culture and managerial practices. Toxic leadership, internal conflicts and micromanagement issues can be detrimental for both employees and organization’s performance. Instances of incivility and conflict should be actively discouraged and replaced with compassion and mutual respect. A strong peer support system will go a long way in ascertaining the well being of the employees.
While it would be difficult to identify precise productivity gains achieved through interventions for reducing stress and burnout instances, research done by iOpener institute indicates that in some mid sized firms, it has boosted employee’s productivity by 12 percent. The instance of burnout is a signal for the individual employee to identify the stressors and devise mechanism to deal with the current sequence of work related events. Perhaps even more important intervention lies with the organization in designing the work system that not only identifies the burnout issues, but also have mechanism to suitably address them.