Havard Business Review - How Managers Can Prevent Their Teams

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How Managers Can Prevent Their Teams from Burning Out

No organization wants to burn out its employees. And yet, according to new research, companies’ efforts to prevent prolonged stress among their staffs are falling short.

When Deloitte recently surveyed 1,000 full-time employees in the United States, we found that 77% had experienced burnout at their current jobs, and more than half said they’d felt it more than once. This was true even though 87% of respondents said they “have passion for their job.” In fact, among those highly engaged workers, 64% said they were frequently stressed. At the same time, nearly seven in ten people (69%) told us they feel their employer “does not do enough to minimize burnout,” while one in five (21%)—told us they don’t believe their employer offers any stress-reduction programs.

What more can organizations do? Our survey pointed to a few potentially powerful interventions.

Encourage real weekends and holidays. Burnout happens when people aren’t given enough time to disconnect, rest, focus on other aspects of life and recharge. Unfortunately, nearly 30% of our survey respondents told us they “consistently work long hours on weekends.” Less than half (43%) said they use all of their vacation days. Even those that do might still check email or take phone calls, instead of making a clean break from the office. When we asked why, the top reason cited was, “I worry that issues would arise if I was away from my work,” followed by not being able to meet deadlines or manager expectations.

This is why it’s so important for leaders to create an environment where taking time off is not only allowed but championed. German auto manufacturer Daimler set a bold example when it launched its “Mail on Holiday” program that auto deletes an employee’s incoming emails while on vacation so they can fully disconnect. The sender is then notified that the email has been deleted and given the option to reach out to a colleague or resend the email when the employee is back in the office.

Expand wellness programs and benefits. When we asked people what sorts of benefits their organizations did offer to help reduce burnout, between 28% and 32% cited family leave, “flexible work options,” or employee assistance programs. That’s a good start, but our survey respondents had many other suggestions, including office health and wellness programs and paid time off for “mental health” or recuperation days. Tonya Slawinski, director of education and training at the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, notes that some companies are now offering stress management training to employees in an effort to preempt burnout.  “It’s hard to teach the techniques to someone who’s already under tremendous stress. It’s important to have the programs in place, so when employees do begin to feel challenged, they have options for resources to turn to.”

One example comes from Aetna, which provides free yoga and meditation classes, on-site fitness centers, nutritious food options, and financial incentives for healthy living to its 50,000 employees. CEO Mark Bertolini — who in 2001 struggled through the stress of his son’s cancer diagnosis and in 2004 had to recover from his own near-death skiing accident — is a vocal proponent of these initiatives, setting an example for staff. Employees won’t take advantage of the above benefits unless they see leaders doing so themselves. A separate Deloitte survey on workplace well-being and employee engagement found that nearly 40% of respondents said if they saw their direct managers and senior leadership prioritizing personal commitments over work, they would feel more comfortable doing the same.

Create a culture of recognition. Three in 10 of our survey respondents cited “lack of support or recognition from leadership” as fueling their burnout. One way to fix that? By encouraging people to simply say “thank you” when reports, colleagues and even bosses do their jobs well. Research shows that companies with high-recognition cultures benefit from less turnover and better performance, probably in part because the environments feel less stressful, or the expressions of gratitude enable people to better cope with the demands they face.

Organizations can also say thank you in bigger ways: Last year, Deloitte U.S. announced a year-end shutdown for all employees. This “collective disconnect” between Christmas and New Year’s not only recognized employees for their hard work but also, because everyone was off at the same time, eliminated any potential guilt or fear about letting colleagues down. In February, to celebrate the 200th birthday of William Welch Deloitte, the company repeated the thank-you with another collective week off.

Stress is inevitable in the workplace and in life. But it doesn’t have to be pervasive. Organizations can and should play a more active role in preventing burnout.

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